Medvedev's political character debated

Other News Materials 21 December 2007 12:45 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - The Kremlin's candidate for president is equal parts shrewd lawyer, loyal aide and government technocrat. What Dmitry Medvedev has never been is a political leader.

After his endorsement this month by President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev is almost certain to be elected Russia's next president on March 2. Putin in turn has agreed to serve as Medvedev's prime minister.

In the days since Putin chose the 42-year-old St. Petersburg native as his preferred successor, Medvedev's political character has become the focus of debate over whether he'll always defer to Putin or become a power in his own right.

Medvedev's reputation as a moderate has been welcomed in the West, where he is seen as more sympathetic than most Kremlin colleagues toward political pluralism and free markets. But in Russian politics, a talent for compromise can be seen as a sign of weakness.

"He's not just a weak man, he's a indecisive man," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst.

Medvedev, the only child of two university professors, came of age during the turbulent 1980s. The state loosened its suffocating grip on society, Russia's tycoons began making their first millions, and the USSR staggered toward its collapse.

As Marxist ideology evaporated, Russia's educated younger generation, Medvedev included, turned toward capitalism with enthusiasm.

Medvedev's first brush with power came in the early 1990s after receiving his law degree from what was then Leningrad State University. Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a liberal reformer, hired the young lawyer to work in the foreign affairs department of St. Petersburg's city government. Putin, another Sobchak loyalist, also worked there.

Ruslan Linkov, a prominent St. Petersburg rights advocate who met Medvedev while he worked at city hall, remembers him as a "quiet, calm and polite man" who broke the mold of stern Soviet-era bureaucrats.

In 1993, while still in the St. Petersburg government, Medvedev became the legal affairs director of Ilim Paper, Russia's largest timber producer. He continued to work in the paper industry after Sobchak lost his re-election bid in 1996, while Putin moved to Moscow.

When then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister three years later, Putin hired Medvedev as his deputy chief-of-staff.

Eventually, Putin elevated Medvedev to chairman of OAO Gazprom, a state-controlled gas and oil company that by some accounts has become the world's third-largest corporation.

In a book published before he was first elected president in 2000, Putin named Medvedev as one of the three people he most trusted.

But unlike Putin and many figures Putin has placed in important government jobs, Medvedev never served in the KGB, its successor, the Federal Security Service, or in any of Russia's other intelligence and security agencies.

At Gazprom, Medvedev has presided over an expansion that has included the purchase of significant stakes in several major media outlets. Gazprom has squeezed foreign oil companies operating in Russia and become one of the Kremlin's chief tools of foreign policy - the use of energy supplies and prices to exert political pressure on many former Soviet bloc nations.

Medvedev was later appointed the Kremlin chief of staff and then one of two first deputy prime ministers.

Although he's carefully carried out Kremlin policies, Medvedev has nurtured an image as the West's friend in the Kremlin. He has talked with evident concern about the fate of democracy and Russia's prospects for future economic growth. He has charmed the rich and powerful at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

For about a year, Medvedev and the other first deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, have been featured in television news features on their visits to factories, farms and hospitals. The programs showed their constrasting styles: Medvedev's terry-cloth personality versus the sandpapery Ivanov, Putin's former defense minister and a onetime KGB agent.

Medvedev's softness apparently triumphed.

Some experts surmise that Putin may be trying to ensure that the siloviki - the intelligence, military and security veterans - don't become too powerful.

"If Medvedev doesn't claim a dominant role, then he will practically be an ideal candidate in the system of checks and balances that Putin is trying to build up," wrote Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank.

Others say by choosing a softer personality like Medvedev, Putin has made a terrible mistake, one that could threaten the nation's stability.

Alexander Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Assessment, said that in Russian history, attempts at power sharing at the top have only resulted in bloodshed.