Could Russia be facing a system of co-sovereignty, but with the roles reversed -- with Vladimir Putin (right) remaining in command, but as prime minister, and first mate Dimitry Medvedev (left) moving to the Kremlin?Foto: AP
The office of the Russian president is located on the second floor of the mustard-yellow building of the former senate, hugging the Kremlin wall. The office, with its view of Moscow's Red Square, contains few of the typical insignias of power. Sharpened red pencils are lined up on the desk, ready to be used for last-minute corrections. A table with gilded legs stands in front of a wood-paneled wall, against a backdrop of the presidential standards.
The people held accountable for glitches and mistakes throughout Russia's vast territory routinely appear at the lower end of this table, caught on camera by state television: governors, ministers, deputy premiers and even the prime minister himself. When it's their turn to speak, they straighten their backs and deliver their reports.
Meanwhile, the president sits at the upper end of the table, leaning back in his leather chair, and yet as tense as a coiled spring. If a report, on educational policy, for example, takes too long for his taste, he has a habit of interrupting and snapping: "And, is the work coming along?" Or, if the report meets with his approval, he might order, with a wave of his hand, higher salaries for hundreds of thousands of people in the healthcare system, hastily adding: "The government is prepared."
This has been standard procedure at the Kremlin until now. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's first deputy prime minister, experienced precisely the same treatment some time ago. Medvedev was the man at the lower end of the table. Vladimir Putin was sitting at the head of the table.
The order at Putin's table remains valid until Sunday, when the relatively publicity-shy Medvedev, on Putin's suggestion, will likely be elected the country's next president. Following the official transfer of power in May, Putin, who has held the country's highest office for eight years, will -- on Medvedev's suggestion -- assume the lower-ranking position of prime minister.
It's a rarity in politics for the chef and the waiter to switch aprons, and to do it harmoniously, no less. In Russia's strictly hierarchical leadership circles, it would normally be inconceivable. The fact that nothing less than the reins to the country are at play in the upcoming exchange of roles has even seasoned Kremlin astrologers speculating.
What has prompted Putin, the most popular Kremlin leader in a long time, to switch to the subordinate position after the end of his constitutionally limited term in office? And what distinguishes his successor Medvedev, 42, a lawyer from St. Petersburg who was considered subservient until now? Merely the ability to be subservient? Could Russia be facing a system of co-sovereignty, but with the roles reversed -- with Putin remaining in command, but as prime minister, and first mate Medvedev moving to the Kremlin?
In a speech before the Russian State Council, Putin presented a list of ambitious goals for Russia, the reawakening superpower -- not just for the present, but for a period extending well into the future until 2020. In doing so, he laid the bait for a hungry pack of Kremlin analysts. In 2012, after a four-year interregnum with Medvedev as president, Putin, who would be 59 by then, would be eligible to serve two additional terms as president.
Moscow's current game of chess over political positions revolves around the question of who will be in charge, in the longterm, of the world's largest country by landmass. Who will determine what happens with the country's vast oil, gas and diamond resources, its gold and foreign currency reserves worth almost half a trillion dollars, the world's second-largest nuclear weapons arsenal and poison cupboards full of intelligence files?
Will it be the slight Medvedev, who will soon join the world's leaders at the G-8 summits to debate the global financial crisis and the Iranian nuclear program? Will Medvedev become the new czar, or will he remain the czarevich, as the sons of Russian czar were once called?
The best place to begin to look for answers to these questions is St. Petersburg, a city that is both the home of Vladimir Putin and the place of birth of his successor.
Medvedev was born in Kupchino, a faceless suburb to the south of St. Petersburg. It is only a 30-minute ride on the overcrowded subway between this drab bedroom community of 420,000 people, with its five- and nine-story prefab, Communist-era high-rise blocks, and the magnificent cathedrals and palaces of downtown St. Petersburg. An entire world separates the two places. Tourists flying into Pulkovo Airport from the east are unlikely to give Kupchino's concrete wasteland more than a passing glance.
Putin, the son of a factory worker, grew up in the 1950s in the streets and alleyways of the old city, still scarred by war and destruction, in an overcrowded communal apartment near the Palace Square. His successor, on the other hand, is a foster child of the more recent Soviet era and the son of a professor. His father, Anatoly, taught at the Institute of Technology, while his mother, Yulia, taught language and literature at the Gertsen Institute. As part of the intelligentsia, the Medvedev family received its own apartment in Kupchino, in a building with an elevator. That same elevator hardly works today, as a neighbor complains, although she adds that this will "hopefully change now." The grimy entrance and courtyard could also use some TLC, she says, "before someone installs a plaque to honor the new president."
An Auspicious Political Start in St. Petersburg
Nowadays Kupchino is a bastion of the St. Petersburg working class. Those who could afford to moved away, bought an apartment in the city and sent their children to private schools. But those who stayed behind now have reason to be proud -- of Dmitry Medvedev, now the dismal neighborhood's most famous son. In the office of the principal of School 305, a two-story building from the Soviet era, a framed photo of the former pupil has already acquired a place of honor on her shelf, next to a portrait of Pushkin and a bust of Russian war hero Marshal Shukov.
Medvedev's class, says the principal, was "quite successful." A former teacher, she adds that young Dima showed promise early on when he showed up for the first grade already able to read. He also "excelled" in his political information classes, she says, and showed an avid interest in books and music. Medvedev's photo is displayed at the entrance to the school, and beneath it are the words: "All pupils and teachers wish Dmitry Medvedev success in the presidential election."
The motto is that every citizen is a cog in the wheel of a propaganda machine, one in which every word is carefully calculated to shine a favorable light on the heir apparent, who was only installed last December. Seventy-five percent of all Russians have already decided that they will be voting for the Kremlin's candidate on Sunday.
The mood is also proud in the law department at St. Petersburg State University. After Kerensky, Lenin and Putin, Medvedev is now the fourth "Russian leader since the overthrow of the last czars who studied here," says Nikolai Kropachov, the dean, who has also been the acting rector of the university since last week. He noticed the boy from Kupchino right away, says Kropachov: "A clear, intelligent young man who spoke well and made the teachers uncomfortable. Medvedev began where others stopped."
It is difficult to distinguish between honest praise and legend-building when it comes to Medvedev. There is at least some evidence in his past that Medvedev is someone who excels at growing into his tasks. When he first began studying at the university he was considered a blatnoi, or someone who got in on the strength of the right connections. While working as a lab assistant -- a job his father had secured for him -- Medvedev attended evening classes in the law department.
The prominent university is on Vassily Island, between the Big and Little Neva Rivers, where the city's streets are referred to as "Lines." Building No. 7 on the 22nd Line is roughly the Russian equivalent of France's Ecole nationale d'administration or England's Cambridge University: an elite institution. Russia's oldest law school, it was founded in 1724 by a decree of Czar Peter the Great. It is noteworthy that Medvedev soon managed to make the switch here from night school to a full-time course of study, without any help from anyone else. "He was a pragmatist, not an Einstein," says Marina Lavrikova, a former fellow student and an assistant professor today, "but he did make an impression, because he was so knowledgeable." According to other former fellow students, there were "significantly more charismatic people in his class."
In his second year, Medvedev received an award for a conference presentation on the "Economic Mechanism of Developed Socialism." He also completed his compulsory military service successfully, serving in a village in Karelia near the border with Finland. A photograph depicts Medvedev as a boyish young man with a serious face, presenting a Kalashnikov that seems to dwarf his small chest. By the end of his military service, Medvedev had climbed to the rank of second lieutenant. When recruiters from the courts, the district attorneys' offices and the KGB flooded the department shortly before the end of his tenure, Medvedev decided to stay. He had a "red degree," which meant that he, along with three others, had qualified for the doctoral program.
He wrote his dissertation about the legal status of government-owned businesses in a market economy, conducting basic research that would serve him well later in his career.
Diligence, combined with talent and good connections, were Medvedev's trumps as he quickly ascended a career ladder that would eventually land him a spot in Moscow's power elite. He has since been joined by a handful of his fellow students from St. Petersburg, including the head of the country's supreme arbitration court, the president's representative on the constitutional court, the deputy attorney general and a director at the state-owned energy conglomerate, Gazprom.
Medvedev's political career began in 1990, at city hall in St. Petersburg, which was still Leningrad at the time, in the office of Anatoly Sobchak. A law professor, Sobchak had noticed Medvedev four years earlier as brigade leader at a collective farm in Sovcho near the Estonian border, where Medvedev was a student helper during the potato harvest. Medvedev was impressed by Sobchak because, in addition to having read Tacitus and Plutarch, Brodsky and Mandelstam, he was a tenured professor of business law at the university.
Sobchak, a brilliant attorney by Soviet standards, spoke of the multiparty system and market economy early on and had connections to Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov. When he campaigned for a seat in the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union in 1989, one of his campaign workers was young Medvedev, who helped print flyers and campaign on behalf of his role model.
When Sobchak became the city's mayor in 1991, he summoned Medvedev to join him in the Smolny Institute, a crème-colored palace and adjacent monastery, which serves as the mayor's official seat and reflects the changeable history of this dazzling city like few other buildings.
The Smolny, an institute for the daughters of the hereditary nobility in the days of the czars, was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The revolutionaries used it as their headquarters, and it was there that Lenin declared the birth of the Soviet Union. Finally, on Dec. 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the Communist Party leader in Leningrad, was murdered there, giving Josef Stalin the excuse to launch the "Great Terror."
But in the final months of the Soviet Union, and in the months after its fall, the germ of what would become Putin's state was planted at the Smolny. The last hour of the planned economy had come, it was the dawning of the age of young capitalists and fortune-seekers alike, and the mayor wanted fresh, capable minds on his team. Others who have since risen to power also congregated in Leningrad at the time: German Gref, who would later become Russia's economics and trade minister, Alexei Kudrin, the current finance minister, and Alexei Miller, now the chairman of energy giant Gazprom.
In those days, Medvedev had already developed a reputation in the legal community as an advocate of civil rights. But he was so inconspicuous that visitors in Sobchak's circle would often mistake him for the receptionist. In reality, the 26-year-old was working as a legal advisor to the mayor's office.
The exact files that Medvedev was asked to review at the time is disputable. Contemporary witnesses like wealthy St. Petersburg construction magnate Sergei Nikeshin, who the newspaper Novoye Vremya accuses of having received questionable large contracts with Medvedev's help, have little to say when asked about the future president's past. "Medvedev? You will understand that I can say nothing about this at the present time," he has said.
One aspect of the ambitious young man's history is known, and that is that he ultimately failed to protect his boss, Sobchak, from legal investigation. In 1995, the Russian attorney general, criticizing the city administration for its "atmosphere of general corruption," sent a team of investigators to the city on the Neva.
One of those affected by the charges was the deputy mayor -- a slim, inconspicuous blonde who, in the confusion of the blossoming market economy, headed the influential Committee for External Relations, which meant that he was the gatekeeper for anyone seeking to do business in St. Petersburg's lucrative market.
The blond man was Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin's New Factions: The 'Oil Party' vs. the 'Gas Party'
Medvedev was an expert advisor to Putin, who was 13 years his senior. According to contemporaries, Medvedev looked up to and was inspired by Putin. In an interview with SPIEGEL, Medvedev said that Putin's strengths were already apparent at the Smolny: "He was a good listener, was able to address the details and even dealt with calls about broken pipes."
One of the chief Moscow investigators at the time says derisively that Medvedev, the young lawyer, was merely a hanger-on. Medvedev himself calls it a romantic time. "We felt it," says Medvedev, "the 'wind of change.' Those years were important on our path to becoming a civil society."
Today, less than a decade later, the optimistic young market economists who once worked at the Smolny in St. Petersburg have arrived at the nerve centers of power in Moscow. They include Medvedev, who Putin brought into his government bureaucracy in 1999, appointed deputy head of the presidential administration after only a year and later as its head and, finally, made deputy prime minister in 2005. But battalions from the "Big House," the headquarters of the former Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, on St. Petersburg's Liteijny Prospekt, are now in Moscow. In addition to Putin, current Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev, director of the domestic intelligence agency FSB, two graying Kremlin cardinals and the head of the country's drug enforcement agency began their careers at KGB headquarters in Leningrad.
During the past eight years in Moscow, Medvedev has had a ringside seat to the trench warfare he can expect when he becomes president, a struggle for power between "old" and "new" St. Petersburgers, between the former employees of the intelligence agencies, known as Siloviki, and liberals, and, more recently, between the "oil party" and the "gas party."
Despite the fact that all the independent parties have now been eliminated from the Russian parliament, the Duma, two factions have taken shape in the Kremlin. The "oil party," led by Putin's powerful deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin, staunchly defends its sinecures surrounding Rosneft, the state-owned oil company. Meanwhile, the "gas party" is rapidly expanding its influence with the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom.
Medvedev, as chairman of the board of directors of Gazprom since 2000, is part of the gas party. The market value of the company has increased 50-fold since then, making it what is currently the world's fourth-largest company.
With Medvedev at the head of the board of directors and Alexei Miller as chairman of the management committee, Putin is in the process of reshaping the natural gas giant into a central tool of domestic and foreign policy.
Medvedev has made it clear that he believes that the state is "probably the worst of all possible owners," and he supports lowering the barriers for foreign investment. But he also complied with Putin's wish to increase the government's share in Gazprom to more than 50 percent.
In November 2003, shortly after taking office as the director of the Kremlin administration, Medvedev criticized the proceedings against jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But this didn't prevent him from bringing key pieces of the forcefully destroyed Yukos Group under Gazprom's control. Medvedev approved the incorporation of independent television station NTW into the Gazprom media empire, as well as the purchase and later resale of the former government newspaper, Isvestiya, to a banker friend of Putin's.
His recipe for success, both at Gazprom and at the Kremlin, has been simple: He is always in the picture, but never truly blameworthy -- neither for the destruction of the party landscape, which is attributed to his deputy in the Kremlin, nor for the only modest success of the "national projects" to improve the infrastructure, which Putin put under Medvedev's command in 2005. Three out of four Russians surveyed are convinced that funds distributed during Medvedev's tenure -- €7.6 billion last year alone -- were "squandered or stolen."
By working discreetly behind the scenes, Putin-favored Medvedev uses what one might call the Teflon principle: No matter what he touches, nothing sticks to him. "Medvedev was intricately involved in most of the major power struggles from 1999 to 2007, without being directly associated with them," writes the Russian daily Kommersant. The paper concludes that the St. Petersburg lawyer's influence may be overestimated, and that he is often only nominally responsible.
But the old networks with their hidden explosive material are still there -- both Medvedev's and Putin's. Konstantin Chuychenko, another former fellow student of Medvedev's who later became a KGB officer, is a prime example. He is the director of RosUkrEnergo, a notorious natural gas delivery company that earns billions from the resale of Central Asian gas, and has been at the center of disputes between Russia and Ukraine since 2004. At issue is the accusation that the company is siphoning off astronomical profits from the gas trade, with Gazprom's acquiescence.
When banker Oleg Zhukovsky was brutally murdered on Dec. 6, the name Medvedev quickly came up. A specialist for major customers in the wood and cellulose business, he was strangled and tied up in the pool of his villa outside Moscow -- a few months after Russian paper industry giant Ilim Pulp had sold shares it had reacquired, some of them from Zhukovsky's bank, at a handsome profit to a US investor for $650 million. After the incident, the Russian magazine SmartMoney wrote that the shares Dmitry Medvedev held in Ilim Pulp until 1999 were worth today's equivalent of "$300 million. Whether he sold his shares or transferred them to a foundation before moving to Moscow in 1999 is unknown."
Medvedev's former business partners deny that the presidential hopeful still holds shares, either directly or through them, as middlemen. At the Ilim Pulp headquarters in the town of Koryazhma in the northern Russian Taiga, where Europe's largest pulp and paper mill belches its clouds of chemicals over the surrounding forests, employees prefer to talk about Medvedev as a young lawyer, who began his career in business in an office on the third floor of the company's administration building, where he was director of the legal department. He left the company in 1999 when investigators from the public prosecutor's office began to explore the privatization of the paper mill.
According to the statement of assets he was required to submit before the presidential election, Medvedev, a former major shareholder in Ilim Pulp, has only €76,111 in assets today. His wife Svetlana is apparently even worse off. Her account shows a balance of only €10.55. A nine-year-old Volkswagen is rusting away in the couple's garage.
But it is precisely Svetlana, Medvedev's former fellow pupil, whom he has known since the first grade and to whom he has been married for 18 years, who appears to have been preparing herself for her role as Russia's first lady for some time. She lost weight, ordered more stylish outfits and began showing up in church more often -- in full view of the cameras. Insiders familiar with her behavior warn that she could be another Raissa Gorbachev. Former President Mikhail Gorbachev's wife's self-confident manner was a serious affront to many conservative Russians.
The Medvedev family lives in a 364-square-meter (3,918-square-foot) apartment, worth $6 million, on Minsk Street in Moscow. The condominium building, known as the "Golden Keys," is home to not only the Medvedevs and various multimillionaires from the oil and food industry, but also the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church.
'No One Should Confuse his Politeness with Weakness'
Those who have long held the reins of power in Moscow have built vacation homes on Lake Komsomolzen near the Finnish border, 730 kilometers (454 miles) northwest of Moscow's "Golden Keys." The road that leads through birch and pine forests to Ozero, a community of dachas, is known as Putinka.
A barrier blocks access to the shore of the lake where Vladimir Putin built his weekend house in the 1990s, and German shepherds roaming free scare away anyone who isn't authorized to be there. Otherwise, the place is quiet, at least on weekdays. The founders of the cooperative include the director of the Russian railway system, the general director of its nuclear trading group, the chairman of the board of directors of Bank Rossiya, Russia's education minister and his brother, the head of Gazprom subsidiary Lentransgas.
The way the core elements of "Kremlin Inc." stick together in their isolation on a few thousand square meters of property, as if they couldn't even bear the thought of being apart in their free time, seems oddly innocent. But it is consistent with an X-ray image of a system created by Putin, and of which Medvedev is a part.
The spirit of Lake Komsomolzen corresponds to the sense that Putin's state is essentially an old boy's club that enjoys the comforting feeling that this small group is capable of controlling many things, including giant businesses, banks, football clubs and pipeline deals.
While members of the Kremlin administration suggest that the short-statured Medvedev (he is 1.65 meters, or 5'5", tall) is certainly capable of emerging from the shadow of his teacher, Putin, "in one to two years," most political observers believe that rapid changes are unlikely. According to Valeriy Fadeyev, editor-in-chief of the magazine Expert, "social tensions" are growing in the country, and its new president will "not have an easy start of it."
High inflation calls for deregulation of markets. But in the debate over a proposed law on foreign investments, Kremlin hawks are pushing to ban foreign majority shareholders from additional sectors of the industry. Anatoly Chubais, a figurehead of the economic liberals, warns against even more isolation. "How much," he asks, "is Russia's confrontational foreign policy costing us?"
More has happened under Putin than merely a re-nationalization of key industries. The Russian president took his country down a new path in diplomacy, one that involves resistance to Kosovo's independence, a balancing act on the Iranian nuclear program, ongoing conflicts with former Soviet brother nations and vocal objections to US plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
All of this could now be put to the test. No one knows what Medvedev has planned.
This reticence is also a reflection of the caution of those who attempted, until the last minute, to block his path to become Putin's successor, and who are now prepared to do whatever it takes to harm him -- the close-lipped, Byzantine men's club in the Kremlin led by former KGB officer Igor Sechin.
The group is presumed to be the source of stories dealing with Medvedev's past as a businessman that are now being disseminated on the Internet, as well as of the rumors that David Aaronovich Mendel, the son of Jewish parents Aaron and Zilya Mendel, changed his name to Dmitry Medvedev for career reasons -- an outgrowth of the anti-Semitism that is so ubiquitous in Russia. But if the "Siloviki" truly had as much influence at the Kremlin many believe they still have, Medvedev would probably never have even become a candidate for the country's highest office.
And he would probably never have given the fiery speech he gave on Feb. 15 in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he told his audience that it was time to finally put an end to "right-wing nihilism" in Russia, that the country needs an independent judiciary and better conditions of detention and that high-ranking government officials ought to resign their positions as company board members.
It sounded like the voluntary self-exposure of a secret dissident in the innermost circle of power, prompting many to wonder whether Medvedev means what he says. Could it be that this is a man who plans to achieve the things he believed were impossible in his lesser position, once he rises to the pinnacle of government?
Is he a czarevich who dreams of sticking it to the old czar? Putin doesn't seem to think so, calling him the right man to "continue" the current policies. As prime minister, Putin will serve as a certain guarantee of continuity, shaping the budget, setting the country's economic course abroad and guaranteeing its ability to defend itself.
For Medvedev -- the man the West is welcoming, both joyously and prematurely, as Putin's successor and as a potential ally, because of his liberal and pro-market views -- this would mean that he is nothing but an attention-getter in the display window of democracy.
The Kremlin strategists have carefully cultivated this image of Medvedev as a "Westerner," hoping to send a signal to foreign political and business elites. This image allows the candidate to increasingly distance himself from Putin's street urchin slang by choosing his words carefully.
"No one should confuse his politeness with weakness," says Gazprom board member Burckhard Bergmann, who has known Medvedev for a long time. During the unofficial preliminary competition Medvedev, with his quiet and stiffly authoritative manner, distinguished himself from his macho competitor, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. He flew diligently around the country, kissing babies, petting cows and telegenically frying eggs in the wooden houses of poor farming families. He eventually emerged as the frontrunner.
He now comes across as significantly thinner, more dynamic and more self-confident. But one thing he still lacks is Putin's facial expressions, those of a man who is constantly poised to attack. Medvedev, a career bureaucrat, still seems like a man who is following his path to the top because of an official order, and not because of destiny.
Two things remain unclear in Russia's future power structure. One is the question of who will be leaning back in his chair at the small wooden table in the office of the president, and who will be sitting up straight to deliver his reports on television. The second is the question of what to do about the presidential portrait.
Will Putin, as prime minister, keep a photograph of the new Kremlin boss hanging in his office, as is customary? Popular wisdom has it that he will, but under one condition: "The picture will have to show Medvedev standing in front of a portrait of Putin on the wall."
UWE KLUSSMANN, WALTER MAYR, CHRISTIAN NEEF, MATTHIAS SCHEPP
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.