MOSCOW – With the election of Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as Russia’s new president Sunday, the country wades into uncharted waters as it reconciles the emergence of a new leader with the reluctance of its popular, czarlike ruler to fully relinquish power.
Russia’s tumultuous history has always been grounded by one constant – that czars, general secretaries and presidents never shared the helm. That is expected to change when Medvedev is inaugurated in May and names Putin his prime minister.
Putin has made it clear he will use the post as a means of maintaining oversight of the country he has ruled as president for the last eight years, and the economic and geopolitical resurrection he has stewarded.
Putin has stated repeatedly that Medvedev will carry out a course for Russia that Putin’s Kremlin has established, rather than any agenda for change that Medvedev might propose. For his part, Medvedev, a longtime protégé of Putin and one of his closest allies, has dutifully agreed to comply.
What unsettles many in Russia is the potential for a moment in time when Medvedev steps out of Putin’s shadow and begins asserting his own leadership. How will Putin, known for his unyielding style of governance, accept the necessity of stepping offstage?
“There’s this feeling in Russia that, sooner or later, there will be bickering and squabbles between the two camps, and what we may end up with is paralysis of executive power,” says Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Putin’s presidency and analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The Kremlin elites will not know who to obey, and whose decisions are more important.”
Medvedev, 42, steps into the job not having held elected office before and without any power base of his own. Many Russians said they wanted Medvedev to lead the country not because he impressed them as a candidate, but because Putin told them Medvedev was his choice.
Ivan Petrov, a 51-year-old machinist from Kuzminki, a working-class neighborhood in Moscow, said he voted for Medvedev solely because “he will carry out Putin’s plan. Putin ensures stability. He’s brought order to our country.”
“Russians aren’t expecting Medvedev to become an independent figure, a leader,” says Boris Dubin, a senior analyst at the Levada Center, a leading pollster. “Rather, they want him to be a diligent, obedient executor.”
With Putin at his side, Medvedev greeted thousands of supporters buffeted by a cold rain at a concert on Red Square late Sunday and promised to carry on with Putin’s agenda for Russia. “Together we will follow the path proposed by Putin,” Medvedev said. “We will move forward together, and we will win together.”
Though considered to be more moderate than Putin, analysts do not expect the Kremlin’s icy relations with the United States and Western Europe to improve under Medvedev.
He isn’t likely to veer from Putin’s strong opposition to U.S. plans for a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, and he has already spoken out against U.S. support for Kosovo independence, promising that Russia will fully back Serbia’s bid to retain authority over Kosovar territory. Experts predict Medvedev’s tone will be less aggressive than Putin’s, but the underlying policy won’t change.
Experts also are split as to whether Medvedev will begin to reverse the erosion of civil society that has characterized the Putin presidency.
Medvedev is regarded by some as more liberal and Western-minded than Putin, talking in recent speeches of the need to renew the ideals of freedom and the rule of law in Russian society.
“I am talking here of freedom in all its different manifestations,” Medvedev said in Krasnoyarsk Feb. 15. “Personal freedom, economic freedom, freedom of self-expression.”
“Medvedev has begun to talk about the need for strong institutions, which is significant,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs. “If he really tries to strengthen institutions, then it’s possible we could expect some improvement in democracy-building here.”
However, Vladimir Milov, president of the Institute for Energy Policy in Moscow and a former Russian deputy energy minister, doubted Medvedev’s commitment to democratic principles, stressing that Medvedev worked as a top Putin aide at a time when Kremlin policies grew increasingly authoritarian.
“It was Putin’s administration headed up by Dmitry Medvedev that limited democratic freedoms in Russia,” Milov said. “It’s too naive to trust in all those tales about Medvedev being a liberal.”
Though not a politician, Medvedev is known as an adroit lawyer and businessman, a technocrat who effectively carried out Putin’s instructions, first as a top Kremlin aide and more recently as a first deputy prime minister in charge of tackling Russia’s social ills.
Medvedev owes much of his victory not to his own rapport with voters but to his mentor’s image among most Russians as the driving force behind Russia’s economic revival.
The stability that Putin brought to Russia in his eight-year presidency followed the rudderless post-Soviet era in the 1990s under predecessor Boris Yeltsin, a period of economic decline in which millions of Russians lost their life’s savings.
Largely due to sky-high oil prices, poverty and unemployment have been reduced under Putin, and Russia’s GDP has been growing at nearly 7 percent each year. Russia’s remarkable economic comeback has transformed Moscow into the world’s most expensive city and made success stories out of other cities in the European side of Russia, though much of eastern Russia and the North Caucasus region remains mired in economic decay.
“Putin proved to be a good president. He ensured stability and he raised pensions,” said Lilia Azizan, 67, after voting for Medvedev at Children’s Music School No. 45 in southwest Moscow. “It doesn’t mean that life is good for everyone, but in general it’s better.”
Russians believe the Putin-Medvedev tandem is the best guarantee that the country’s revival will continue. But experts say the partnership carries risk. The post of prime minister is subordinate to the president. How much power is Putin willing to relinquish once Medvedev becomes acclimated to the presidency and begins to assert his own authority?
“Conflict between Medvedev and Putin is inevitable,” said Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian liberal and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. “But the tradition in Russia is that the one who is in the Kremlin holds all the power. If Medvedev is in the Kremlin, then he will win this battle between president and prime minister.”
The latest results issued early today pointed to a landslide win for Medvedev. With 69 percent of the vote counted, Medvedev had garnered 69 percent. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov trailed far behind with 18 percent. Election officials said voter turnout was about 67 percent.
Russian authorities had eliminated any meaningful opposition long before Sunday, forcing former chess champion Garry Kasparov to abandon his presidential effort and removing from the ballot former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
The three contenders allowed on the ballot, Zyuganov, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Andrei Bogdanov, head of the little-known Democratic Party, were largely ignored by Russia’s state-owned television networks. They appeared in televised debates together, but Medvedev saw no need to participate.