Kremlin power-sharing: Crown for Medvedev, sceptre for Putin

Other News Materials 26 February 2008 11:25 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - The double-headed eagle in Russia's coat of arms is finding itself imitated in the country's highest office.

"Two heads, one power," is the Kremlin's slogan for presidential elections set for Sunday, reflecting the intention of departing President Vladimir Putin, 55, to continue calling the shots under his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, 42.

In the era of Russia's tsars, co-sovereignty led to chaos. Putin has assured the country that it won't come to that. But it is becoming apparent that while Putin is prepared to grant Medvedev the crown after his expected victory Sunday, he will keep the sceptre.

While in the United States, presidential candidates fascinate the public months ahead of the election, by contrast in Russia the approach of the date is just beginning to dawn on voters. Putin sees nothing wrong with that.

"A campaign without this debating ... doesn't automatically equal a deficit of democracy," Putin said in a convincing tone of voice. There is a lot to show "that the majority of our citizens support the course of recent years."

Medvedev is experiencing huge support from state administrations and television stations. As head of Gazprom's board of directors, he is profiting from the media empire that the gas monopoly has acquired.

For most of the 20th century the general secretaries of the former Soviet Union were old men who typically spurned the idea of giving up power. The change to a younger leader occurred with the dynamic Putin. Medvedev in turn would be the youngest Russian leader since the time of the tsars.

But who is the man who in a short time will have control over a country with a landmass of 17 million square kilometres, thousands of nuclear warheads and a considerable portion of the world's supply of oil and gas?

Medvedev has come off as a little brother of Putin in the campaign. He is 13 years younger, relatively small and with the beginnings of a leftist tilt similar to that which the inexperienced Putin had when he captured Russia's pinnacle of power in 2000.

In his speeches Medvedev presents himself as a cosmopolitan, liberal politburo manager, who wants to grapple with the subject of climate change, a topic that up to now Russians have considered suspicious.

But critics warn that the image of a modern politician is deceptive. The former head of the presidential administration is partly responsible for the authoritarian turnaround in recent years.

Former vice energy minister Vladimir Milov, in an interview broadcast on Russian radio in January, said there were no grounds for classifying Medvedev as a liberal. He wonders how deeply Russian politics must be undercut by the secret service if anyone who has no past as an agent is automatically classified as a liberal.

The question remains: Why of all the St Petersburg companions surrounding Putin, he chose Medvedev? "Because I trust him," Putin said in justifying his selection, which most voters will blindly follow.

It will be exciting to see how Medvedev asserts himself against the "hawks" in the Kremlin. The man without spy credentials could be a thorn in the side of the secret service types. Medvedev's proclamations in the fight against corruption and the "nihilism of rights" do not sound like expressions of war, particularly against the secrets that control a large part of the economy.

Medvedev has more to fear from envious people in the Kremlin than his opponents on Sunday. The head of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, 63, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 61, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, are considered tame opposition. Putin's praise for both politicians - he called them "upstanding patriots" - didn't necessarily sharpen their profiles as Kremlin opponents.

Andrei Bogdanov, head of a splinter party, is the fourth candidate. Candidates who would have been uncomfortable to run against saw their attempts to run fail when they tried to register their candidacy with election authorities.

A normal transfer of power after a full term in office or due to illness of a ruling leader has no tradition in the Kremlin. Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, voluntarily handed over power to Putin, though the transfer occurred before the end of 1999 so that the election in the spring of 2000 was like a confirmation of Yeltsin's hand-picked successor.

Russia was heavily indebted and deeply unstable when Putin came to power. He will leave office with power centralized and foreign debt paid off, a state of affairs that had resulted in abounding self-confidence in the country.

Putin is going, but in reality he will stay. The promised smooth division of power with Medvedev has aroused doubt. Political scientist Lilia Shevtsova of Moscow's Carnegie Centre believes that Kremlin gears will begin to grind as soon as both politicians set up their teams.

"Then there will be fights over finances, the state administration and over prestige," she predicted. Medvedev already has announced that in the future there will be only one centre of power - the presidency.

Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is not sending election observers to protest election restrictions, Western governments can live with the duo. Some have been put at ease over the selection of Medvedev.

Just a few months ago there was concern in the German chancellor's office that the new Russian leader would continue on the nationalist path Putin has taken in order to prove himself as a worthy successor.

After the end of his term in office on May 7 Putin will continue to set the rules. For example he, not Medvedev, has already declared the strategy for Russia through to 2020.

Meanwhile, Russia's comedians have zeroed in on the duo. One joke describes Putin and Medvedev in a restaurant. Putin says to the waiter, "I'll have steak." The waiter says, "And what about your side dish?" Looking toward Medvedev, Putin replies, "He'll have steak, too."