As Putin's apprentice becomes Russia's president, many ask whether he will lead or be led

It might be a tale out of a 19th century Russian storybook: A clerkish young lawyer apprenticed to a powerful man rises, through Byzantine political intrigue, to become ruler of Russia.

But Dmitry Medvedev is not guaranteed a fairy tale ending, according to AP.

The 42-year-old attorney, who has long served as an adviser, fixer and friend to Vladimir Putin, will be inaugurated as Russia's president Wednesday. The ceremony will mark the start of three days of pomp and circumstance that will include Putin being named prime minister Thursday and the annual Victory Day parade Friday in Red Square.

Medvedev, the scholarly son of university professors, who has a taste for designer clothes and heavy metal music, becomes the leader of the world's largest nation in geography, one of the richest in natural resources - and one of the most turbulent in terms of history.

In December, Putin picked Medvedev, then deputy prime minister, as his successor, even though he had never held elective office and has no political base of his own. The Kremlin dutifully engineered Medvedev's election in March.

Ever the loyal protege, Medvedev has pledged to "supplement and develop" Putin's programs. But Russia's new president has shown some signs of trying to move out of his mentor's shadow.

The 42-year-old - the youngest Russian leader in nearly a century - has repeatedly promised to strengthen the rule of law, tame Russia's ferocious bureaucrats and reduce the role of the state in the economy. Most strikingly, he has rejected the notion popular among Kremlin officials that Russia requires a "managed" democracy because of its unique history and culture.

All of these positions could be seen as implicit criticisms of Putin, who has presided over a growing bureaucracy, expanded the role of state enterprises and shackled the country's political opposition.

To change Russia's course, Medvedev would have to battle the entrenched interests of bureaucrats and top government officials, many of them veterans of the Soviet-era KGB and other security agencies. Some have reportedly grown enormously wealthy during Putin's tenure, and will not welcome change.

It is impossible to predict whether the Medvedev era will be remembered as one of unexpected triumphs, tragic misadventures or unkept promises.

"I think one thing is dead clear," said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent commentator and radio show host. The double-headed state, she predicted, will inevitably lead to power struggles. "We have entered a period of profound instability in the country."

Medvedev assumes the presidency at a time of rising expectations domestically and escalating tensions with NATO and the West.

Average wages rose eightfold during Putin's eight years as president, from roughly US$80 (€52) a month to US$640 (€414), and GDP sixfold. A new middle class is buying foreign cars and taking exotic vacations on the Red Sea.

But Russia's wealth rests on a narrow foundation: oil, gas, metal and timber. On Medvedev's watch Russia's core industries could suffer if, as some forecast, the global economic slowdown deepens dramatically.

Putin's Kremlin has increasingly challenged the West, reviving such symbols of the Soviet past as strategic bomber patrols. On Friday, for the first time since the Soviet era, a major military parade through Red Square will include tanks and nuclear missile launchers.

Now, it will be up to Medvedev's regime to tackle the nuts and bolts job of rebuilding Russia's bloated and outdated military forces.

But Medvedev will inherit only a portion of his predecessor's power.

Putin has already expanded the premier's staff and responsibilities. And he heads United Russia, the dominant party, giving him direct control of parliament and regional political leadership.

The division of Russia's executive creates problems. It not only raises the possibility of power struggles between loyalists of the president and prime minister - it also makes it trickier for Medvedev to do what Putin did: claim credit for successes while blaming prime ministers for failures.

Medvedev has for most of his career worked hard to implement Putin's goals. Even as chairman of Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled natural gas and energy giant, he essentially was seen as someone who didn't give orders but carried them out.

But Medvedev has rejected suggestions he will be Prime Minister Putin's junior.

"It is the president who sets out the main directions of domestic and foreign policy," he told Britain's Financial Times in March. "He's the commander in chief, he makes key decisions on forming the executive. He's the guarantor of rights and freedoms of Russian citizens."

The lawyer - so long a servant to the ambitions of Putin - now seems to have ambitions of his own.

He wants to be president, and not just a figurehead, said Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Whether he can become a full-fledged president is not clear to the rest of us."

There are parts of the job he clearly loves - news conferences, photos ops and dinners with global leaders.

As for Putin, there are some signs he may have grown disenchanted with the routine and is looking for an exit.

The stern former KGB man appears most enthusiastic on the ski slopes or when hobnobbing with jet-setters such as Prince Albert II of Monaco and movie stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Critics say he has enriched himself personally from Russia's energy wealth and may now be one of Europe's richest men - a claim he has denied and which has never been supported with evidence.

He is seldom seen in public with his wife, inspiring rumors of relationships - including a recent report, which he denied and laughed off, that he had left his wife for a younger woman.

A clear signal that Putin is preparing a political exit would instantly raise Medvedev's stature.

Simply assuming the title of president Wednesday should also bolster him. His approval ratings have soared since it became clear he would be president, and Russians seem wary of a two-headed leadership.

Russia has a long history of one-man rule, and a recent poll by the authoritative Levada Center found that a plurality of Russians - 47 percent - favored a continued strong presidency.

But Medvedev can't count on the title alone.

He must build a political base - perhaps among the tycoons, professionals and the emerging middle class who favor greater freedom, protections for small business from predatory bureaucrats and less friction with the West.

Even if Medvedev manages to claim all of the president's powers under the constitution, he could remain the cautious lawyer, seek incremental reforms at the margins and avoid confrontation with powerful potential foes.

If so, Russia may be entering a period when the presidency is largely ceremonial, celebrated with czarist pomp on television - but ignored by most Russians.

"It's hard to say whether we are going to have a new president, or a puppet president," Albats said.

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