Russian power duo — good cop, bad cop?
As Russia's next president, Dmitry Medvedev appears set to play good cop to Vladimir Putin's bad cop.
Medvedev scored a crushing victory in Russia's presidential elections Sunday, taking 68.2 percent of the vote with ballots from over half of electoral precincts counted. His victory was never in serious doubt once Putin backed him in December. ( AP )
The youthful lawyer has suggested he will ease some of the repressive measures used to roll back democracy under his predecessor, and seems likely to present a friendlier face to the West. But Putin, the stern former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for the past eight years, is expected to remain by his side as prime minister - and quite possibly still calling the shots.
Medvedev's main job will be to "rebrand" Russia, especially for foreign investors, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib investment bank.
"He will try to change the perception of Russia from a corrupt, inefficient country lacking legal protections to a country more open for business," Weafer said.
The question is how mentor and protege will share power and whether Medvedev's rise indicates a fundamental shift in the Kremlin game plan, or is simply a public relations move.
Will Medvedev remain subservient to Putin after his inauguration in May? Or will Putin fade into the shadows once he is confident Medvedev has established control? Putin also has left open the option of returning to the presidency when elections are held in four years' time.
Some believe Putin could serve as the president's senior adviser with strong influence over policy - reminiscent of the role played by Vice President Dick Cheney in the administration of President Bush.
Bush has himself expressed uncertainty about Medvedev's role, although he says he does not expect him to be Putin's puppet. He said it would be interesting to see who represents Russia at the Group of Eight summit in Japan in July. In the past, it has always been the president.
It is possible that Putin himself does not yet know how his role will evolve. In the coming months and possibly years, how he and Medvedev share power will be closely watched for signs of where Russia is heading.
During the Putin presidency, Medvedev diligently followed orders, whether as chief of staff or in recent years as first deputy prime minister and chairman of the state-controlled gas behemoth Gazprom.
Demonstrating his loyalty, Medvedev based his campaign on a pledge to carry out "Putin's plan." Most Russians support Putin, credited with bringing steady economic growth and expanding Russia's global influence, and Medvedev has been eager to reassure them there will be continuity.
But once Medvedev is installed as president, with powers that include the right to fire his prime minister, there is no way of knowing whether one day he might turn on his mentor in a bid to concentrate real authority in his own hands.
Medvedev in recent weeks has been speaking out in unanticipated ways. Seeming to cringe at what he calls the "disregard for the law" in Russia, he has talked about the need for independent courts, a free press, protection of private property and an end to the "extortionary" bribes paid to officials by small business.
His pronouncement that "freedom is better than non-freedom" has been grasped at by some Russians dismayed by Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule.
But Medvedev's righteous indignation over corruption and curbs on freedoms clashes with his record. He worked closely with Putin as the Kremlin used compliant courts to silence opponents and take over companies whose owners failed to show sufficient loyalty.
He voiced support for the closing of independent television networks and other measures that strengthened the Kremlin's political control.
At OAO Gazprom, he helped to restore state control over the gas monopoly, the heart of what has become known as Kremlin Inc. Russia has been accused of using Gazprom to put political pressure on neighboring countries that depend on it for their gas supplies.
Under Putin, the Kremlin was focused on regaining the strategic sectors of the economy, including its energy and armaments industries. Foreign firms have been forced to relinquish control over major oil and gas projects.
But with raw materials still accounting for the bulk of Russia's exports, Putin has said that Russia needs to diversify its economy and modernize its manufacturing to maintain growth.
To do so Russia must improve its investment climate, and this is where Medvedev seems to come in.
However, Russia's liberals have dismissed the notion that Medvedev might about bring a thaw as naive.
"This rhetoric is just for stupid foreigners," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal who lost his seat in parliament when the Kremlin changed electoral laws, effectively excluding independents.
"Look around: There is no thaw and there will be none," Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, wrote recently in one of the few remaining independent newspapers. He was excluded from Sunday's race on a technicality in what was widely regarded as part of the Kremlin's effort to ensure Medvedev faced no real challenge.