Medvedev vs Obama as Europe looks east and west

(dpa) - With just days to go before Russians vote for a man to replace outgoing President Vladimir Putin, just one name is on Europe's lips.

Unfortunately for Dmitry Medvedev, the man tipped by Putin himself to be Russia's next president, that name is Barack Obama.

On March 2, Russians are set to choose the country's next ruler as Putin's eight years in office draw to a close.

Two days later, Democrat voters in the US states of Ohio and Texas are set to pick their candidate for November's US presidential election, in what is seen as a make-or-break day for former first lady Hillary Clinton and African-American newcomer Barack Obama.

And despite Russia's power, and its proximity to Europe, it is the Obama-Clinton race which has dominated Europe's headlines in the run- up to the two crucial votes.

Analysts say that there are two reasons for Europe's relative indifference to Russia's crucial vote.

Firstly, the rise of Obama has turned the race for the Democratic nomination - long thought to be in Clinton's hands - into a genuinely dramatic contest, with the outcome too close to call.

That is in marked contrast to the Russian campaign, in which Medvedev, backed by Putin and the full weight of the Kremlin's media empire, is expected to stroll to victory.

"No," Michael Emerson, head of EU foreign and security policy studies at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa bluntly when asked if there was any chance Medvedev could lose.

Secondly, observers in Europe say that the US elections in November could well bring major changes to US foreign policy, especially if a Democrat candidate wins.

Despite Medvedev's reputation among analysts as a more liberal and less confrontational figure, they say the chance of there being a change in Russia's foreign policy from a new and independent-minded president is minimal.

The Russian election "will not significantly alter policy," because Medvedev "is not an independent actor with his own power base," Janusz Bugajski of the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said in a paper given on February 11.

"Everybody knows that Putin will still be in charge," one Brussels diplomat who asked not to be named told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Indeed, some observers say the fact that Putin has already said he would become prime minister after stepping down as president clearly indicates where real power in Russia will lie.

But others dispute the claim, pointing out that Medvedev will hold all the political trump cards which Putin currently controls.

And that being the case, the most hotly-debated question of the Russian election in Europe is not who will win the vote, but how the new president, Medvedev, will manage to work with Putin afterwards.

"The big question for the weeks and months to follow is how the pair will settle down to work together ... It seems to be a completely open question," Emerson said.

Medvedev has already struck a strong note, saying in an interview in early February that "there cannot be two, or three or five centres (of power). The president is in charge of Russia and under the constitution there can only be one president."

But Putin has spoken equally strongly for the prime minister's role, reminding his final press conference that "the highest executive power in the country is in the hands of the government."

"There are enough powers to go around and Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] and I will divide them between ourselves and build up our personal relations," he said.

With those relations still to be defined, observers say that there is still plenty of room for clashes before Russia's post-Putin power structure is secure - and plenty of interest in Europe's corridors of power over how it will work in practice.

"There is huge interest in Europe in how it will work - it's obviously very important," Emerson said.

That being so, in Europe's view, the main difference between this year's two superpower elections is that the intrigue surrounding the US elections looks set to peak on voting day - while the intrigue over Russia's president will only peak once the voting is completed.

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