Friday, February 29, 2008

Vladimir Putin's poodle may yet bite

By Con Coughlin

No one is looking forward to Dmitry Medvedev's decisive victory in this weekend's Russian presidential election more than the incumbent, Vladimir Putin.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin: the would-be president still uses the formal 'vy' to address his boss. Ever since Mr Putin realised that not even such an autocratic ruler as himself could tamper with the constitution to secure a third term, he has been scratching around for ways to maintain his stranglehold over the Kremlin's levers of power - while still maintaining the pretence that Russia is now a truly democratic country.

By arranging for his St Petersburg protégé to become Russia's next president, Mr Putin believes he has found the perfect solution. Mr Medvedev will succeed him as president in name only, while Mr Putin, who officially will take up the lesser role of prime minister, will continue to run the country from behind the scenes.

Or at least that's the theory. But there is another school of thought that suggests it would be wrong to underestimate Mr Medvedev's desire to be his own man.

With an opinion poll rating of 79 per cent, Mr Medvedev can claim that he genuinely merits his elevation to one of the world's most powerful positions. That would, of course, overlook the fact that Mr Putin has effectively emasculated all the other serious rivals and, by his ruthless suppression of independent media channels, has succeeded in brainwashing the Russian public into believing that Mr Medvedev is the best candidate for the job.

advertisementBut even though Mr Putin's motives in choosing Mr Medvedev can hardly be described as altruistic, he could still be proved right about the qualities of his anointed successor.

Mr Medvedev might be derided - certainly within Western diplomatic circles - for being Mr Putin's lap-dog, but he has notched up a number of significant achievements of his own, not least of which is the transformation of Gazprom.

Mr Medvedev turned a Soviet-era industrial basket case that made $670 million in 1998 into one of the world's biggest industrial concerns, with profits reaching $25 billion last year. Gazprom is far more than a mere energy provider: it is a crucial political resource that has financed Mr Putin's dream of restoring Russia's international prestige.

And it has also been used to punish former Soviet states that dare to defy the Kremlin's will, such as Ukraine and Georgia, which suddenly found their energy supplies cut off in 2006 when they provoked Mr Putin's ire.

Mr Medvedev's commitment to both the cause of resurgent Russian nationalism and the continued development of Gazprom's business potential were much in evidence in the Serbian capital Belgrade this week, when he met the hardline Serb nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to sign a deal that will make Russia the main energy provider for Serbia.

What should have been a straightforward business arrangement became a highly significant political gesture, as Mr Medvedev's presence in Belgrade was seen as a welcome gesture of support by Moscow to the beleaguered Serbs after their violent protests against Kosovo's declaration of independence only served to increase their international isolation.

But while Mr Medvedev undoubtedly has the brains for the job, the big question is whether he has the personality and strength of character to lead a vast and complex nation like Russia - while at the same time keeping his uppity prime minister in his place.

Even though Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin go back more than two decades, the two men are like chalk and cheese when it comes to backgrounds and personalities. While Mr Putin is as proud of his working-class roots as he is of his physical prowess - stripping to the waist to show off his impressive physique during a fishing trip last summer - Mr Medvedev's background is altogether more genteel.

Born in 1965 in what was then Leningrad, the young Medvedev was raised by two university professors who were active members of what passed for the intelligentsia. Yulia, his mother, taught Russian literature, while his father was a physics professor.

As a schoolboy, he dreamt of becoming a lawyer, although he also developed an interest in "decadent" Western culture. He took part-time jobs as a construction worker and cleaner to earn money to buy jeans and foreign records, and he was particularly keen on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He once lamented the fact that his parents did not have enough money to buy a copy of The Wall on the black market.

His interest in politics developed during the glasnost era of the 1980s when it was clear the Soviet Union's days were numbered. As a law student he actively campaigned for the election of candidates who promoted free market economics, a heretical ideology in Soviet Russia.

And when a candidate whom Medvedev had supported became mayor of St Petersburg, as the city once more became known after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he found himself working in the mayor's office on reconstruction projects. It was while working for the city that he met Mr Putin, a recently decommissioned lieutenant-colonel in the KGB.

From the outset Mr Putin, who was a good decade older, was the more dominant figure, a dynamic in the relationship between the two men that has lasted to this day, with Mr Medvedev still using the formal "vy" to address his boss.

Whether this attitude survives once Mr Medvedev takes over as president of Russia on Sunday is another matter. When Mr Putin became president eight years ago his detractors said he had only got the job because he had made himself indispensable to Boris Yeltsin. It was only after Mr Putin had taken up residence at the Kremlin that he began to show his true colours, and showed himself to be an autocratic Russian nationalist.

In private, Mr Medvedev is said to be more far more liberal, and committed to the rule of law, than Mr Putin, and does not share Mr Putin's boundless enthusiasm for confronting the West at every opportunity.

Perhaps Mr Medvedev will surprise us all after Sunday's election and show that he is his own man, and not Mr Putin's, after all.

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