Dmitry Medvedev is soft-spoken, not particularly tall and comes across as thoughtful and gentle -- in other words, the very antithesis of a Russian political strongman. Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen to anoint the Gazprom chairman and deputy prime minister as his successor.
On March 2, Russia will elect a new president, and the popular Putin appears to be planning to honor the constitution, which forbids a third consecutive term. He has now named his preferred successor -- and the majority of Russian voters are unlikely to deny the outgoing president his wish. For months, surveys have indicated that people will vote for whomever Putin names as the pretender to his throne -- regardless of whether or not the new face meets the Russian public's ideal of a strong and capable politician.
As the offspring of a St. Petersburg academic family and member of the elite, Medvedev would not have had a ghost of a chance without the Kremlin's blessing. But what Putin wants, he gets. The deputy prime minister and former chief of the presidential staff has been touted as a successor for the past two years -- alongside the other deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov.
Putin has allowed them both to compete for the succession. Medvedev was given the task of implementing four "national projects" that were particularly dear to the people, namely improving housing, health, education and agriculture -- very public issues that were guaranteed to grab the attention of the citizens and build up public trust.
Medvedev visited chicken farms and artificial insemination clinics, and clambered around on building sites. He crisscrossed the country but without showing much in the way of imagination or initiative. In the Byzantine system of loyalties in Russia, this makes him worthy of even higher tasks. But Medvedev didnt have much success with the common folk. He may be Putin's man, but he is not a man of the people.
A Loyal Servant
It wasn't a coincidence that it was Medvedev who was chosen toward the end of the Kremlin's secretive horse trading: He represents a good compromise candidate in two respects. He has worked with Putin for 16 years. When Putin first came to power after Boris Yeltsin resigned in 1999, Medvedev already belonged to his inner circle. He is a loyal servant of his master and has never given cause for complaint.
In contrast to Ivanov, Medvedev has never displayed any signs of wanting to become an absolute ruler himself. He doesnt belong to any of the powerful factions that slug it out in the Kremlin's no-holds-barred power struggles. And, because he doesnt have any power base of his own, Medvedev can loyally play the role of a mediator who preserves the balance of power between the various interest groups.
And the outgoing president will also not have to fear his successor, meaning he can keep open the option of pulling the strings behind the scenes -- whether as prospective Gazprom boss or in another capacity.
The warring factions will be hoping for some sort of arrangement of that kind. They fear that the transfer of power could lead to a new distribution of wealth. However that danger seems to have been avoided for now. Putin's choice makes it clear that he is thinking primarily of his own security and the interests of his cronies. But his decision in favor of the malleable Medvedev also means that the urgently required modernization of the country will be postponed indefinitely.
A Reputation for Liberalism
Compared to the "siloviki," the hardliners in the security and intelligence services who are highly influential in Putin's circle, the prospective presidential candidate makes a very civil impression. Medvedev is neither a thug nor a hitman, and he knows how to behave himself.
But in no way does that make him a representative of liberalism in the Kremlin. Under Putin, Medvedev consciously helped to rebuild the state along more authoritarian and centralized lines. Right at the beginning of the Putin era, Medvedev, as boss of Gazprom Media, orchestrated the takeover of the independent, private TV station NTV, thereby silencing its criticism of the Kremlin.
Medvedev did reject the Kremlin's doctrine of "sovereign democracy" in 2006, saying the term was unfortunate. He argued that democracy either exists or it doesn't and shouldnt be qualified with an adjective. However his stance simply served to highlight his academic background. In the meantime, the term has become a leitmotif of Russian politics, both in domestic politics and foreign affairs, and has become a magic formula that Russia can use to deflect any criticism from the West.
Outside Russia, Medvedev has a reputation for being one of the last representatives of liberalism in Putin's entourage. But the image rings hollow and is really just a tribute to the skills of the presidential administration's PR strategists, who have been working to construct this facade for a long time. There are no longer any ideological factions in the Kremlin -- the only divisions are along the lines of economic interests.
And it would be difficult to claim that Medvedev could even be described as economically liberal. After all, the Gazprom chairman has made the energy giant into the engine of Russian foreign policy during his reign.
But this may not be the last word on the presidential elections. Putin enjoys his little bombshells, and it's not impossible that he will also name Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov -- who is also regarded as a compromise between the Kremlin clans -- as a second candidate.
And that would have one advantage: Moscow could then present the election to the West as being truly democratic.