Dmitry Medvedev: The new man

The Western world might not like the way he got his job – on a nod from Vladimir Putin, endorsed by a highly managed, if not actually rigged, election. Nor – it has to be said – do his three lacklustre opponents, who have railed in vain against his domination of the airwaves. But Dmitry Medvedev is a man we are all going to have to learn to do business with. When the last results come in tomorrow night, he will be officially designated Russia's next head of state. He will be inaugurated as President at the beginning of May.

Down will then come the grave official portraits of Putin, which hang in every Russian government office and representation abroad, and up will go the more affably boyish visage of Dmitry Anatolyevich. Except, perhaps, in one office: Putin has left no doubt that he expects to become Prime Minister in Medvedev's new government, and hints that the portrait space on his new office could remain bare.

Putin's intended job switch has prompted questions about whether there will be any real change of power in Russia and, if not, whether Medvedev might eventually have to fight for his inheritance with nastier means than the ballot box. Dual power – dvoevlast'e – is a recurrent feature of Russian history and never brought the country any good. It does not help Medvedev's cause to note that the most destructive example, in the reign of Tsar Boris Godunov, concerned true and false Dmitrys.

Concern to present himself as his own man may be one reason why Medvedev has used this past month to tour the country in his capacity as first deputy prime minister, rather than as Putin's heir. Another may simply be that, until recently, he was relatively unknown, not just abroad, but in Russia as well.

Whether Russians know their new President any better as a result of this exercise is debatable. At a recent question-and-answer session, he was asked whether there was another, "real", Medvedev, perhaps lurking behind the official mask. There is something almost too perfect and too plausible about him to be completely true.

At 42, Medvedev is even younger than Putin was when he had the presidency thrust upon him by an ailing Boris Yeltsin at the turn of the millennium. No taller than Putin – some have called him "Napoleonic" – he sometimes seems even younger than he is. At the same time, he is already more articulate, and exudes considerably more charm, than Putin did, if not always as much confidence.

In post-Soviet terms, he has a CV that could hardly be bettered. The son of a technical college lecturer and a teacher, he studied and briefly lectured in law at what was then Leningrad State University. But his great-grandparents lived on the land, in the southern agricultural region of Russia. It was his paternal grandfather who made the leap from farm worker to manager, and his parents who made the key move from the provinces to Leningrad as graduate students.

Medvedev was teaching at Leningrad University in the fast-changing days of Gorbachev's perestroika. He became politically active as the democracy movement swept Leningrad in 1990, and – proof that his commitment is more than retro-spin for his presidential campaign – he started to work as a part-time adviser to Anatoly Sobchak, the city's reforming and outspoken mayor. It is here that he first met Putin, who was head of external relations in the same office. Over the years, friendship evolved from mutual regard.

When Sobchak was voted out of office in 1996, Putin transferred to Moscow to work for Yeltsin and Medvedev returned to his academic life. Within three years, however, Putin had engineered a job for him in the Kremlin. They have worked closely together ever since, unfussy efficiency being one quality that united them.

Medvedev's educated background, his academic career, and his total lack of any KGB connection make him immediately more acceptable to Russia's emerging middle class than Putin. This and his friendly manner are thought to have given him the edge in the presidential nomination stakes over the other main contender (and first deputy prime minister) Sergei Ivanov.

But there is also an air of modernity about Medvedev that more senior members of Putin's entourage lack. The 15 years that separate Putin from his protégé are crucial; they are the difference between a career made in what seemed a stable Soviet system, and a career begun in conditions of extreme and unpredicted change. Over the past month, Medvedev has told an audience at a rock concert about the "depressing times, when everything was grey" and how as a teenager he and his friends could only play "this sort of music at home, if at all. That you can do this now is, quite simply, terrific". He boasts of having a full set of the original Deep Purple LPs.

He has also enthused about the internet, telling interviewers that it is essential to be computer-literate nowadays and how he surfs the web at least twice a day. His website for the purposes of the presidential campaign – www.medvedev2008 – is a model of a modern political publicity vehicle, lacking only the funding appeals of an equivalent in the US. Although he has performed impressively at meetings with journalists and – less often – with the voting public, he has not taken the risk of appearing alongside the other candidates in televised debates. It is an omission that makes him look less the modern democrat than he wants to appear.

Democracy is, nonetheless, a concept, along with freedom, the middle class, an independent judiciary and the free market that he bandies about in his speeches. And this new, rather Western, rather intellectual language has left some critics of Putin and the regime flummoxed. They are wary of taking the new vocabulary at face value, fearing that it may be more to impress the outside world than anyone else. Yet those who have spoken to him concede, a little to their surprise, that there seems to be substance behind the words.

Medvedev has also been consistent. His reasoning about the need for more freedom, the independence of the judiciary and the rest has been part of his public utterances for several years. He also has the distinction of being the only member of Putin's coterie to have expressed misgivings about the persecution of the Yukos oil company (and, by implication, the imprisonment of its former head, Mikhail Khodorkovsky).

Keeping such misgivings low key may be accounted wise in the circumstances, but discretion and a disinclination to seek the limelight seem to be a genuine part of his character. He has held some of the most powerful jobs in Russia, as chief of Putin's staff, chairman of the state-controlled energy conglomerate Gazprom, and in his vice-premier capacity, head of long-term national social and economic programmes. Yet it is only now, since his nomination for the presidency, that he is registering on the radar of Russia's voters.

Asked in interviews about his private life, he has come close to blushing. He married his teenage sweetheart, Svetlana, and appears to have lived happily ever after: hanging out with her, he says, was far more entertaining than his school work. She agreed with him, he says, that she would stay at home to look after their son, and now – in the new Russia – engages mostly in good works, including arranging fashion shows for charity.

He also seems to have achieved his success without any overweening sense of ambition. Asked about his aims in life, he said that he didn't like that sort of question because it invited portentous answers. If he had an objective, it was to "live a good life, and be well thought of after I have gone, and leave nothing to be ashamed of". It was a telling answer. Doing nothing to be ashamed of, in the Russian context, tends to mean the sort of ethical compromises many were forced into in the Soviet era.

Interestingly, Medvedev was received into the Orthodox church as an adult, at the age of 22, something he says was his own decision, and seems of a piece with the growing acceptance of a moral framework among today's educated Russians. "Decent" is an adjective many of those who know or have dealt with Medvedev use to describe him.

So far, there has been little of tension between Medvedev and Putin. Most of the differences can be reconciled as reflecting different stages of similar aspirations, deriving from the age gap. In theory, the more modern Medvedev might be easier for the West to live with. But this cannot be guaranteed. While linguistic nuances are important, any president will put Russia's national interest first. Putin's successor will also have to consider the impatience of his domestic constituency for better living standards, as well as the lobbying by some in his circle for a less prickly foreign policy. Not everyone sees the two changes as linked.

Medvedev's first battles are likely to be with the state industries he has pledged at least partly to deregulate. In the event that friction does develop between the new President and his predecessor, though, it should not be taken for granted that Putin would prevail. As President, Medvedev will have an electoral mandate of his own and the constitutional functions – such as a wide swathe of appointments – that go with it. Some also recall how, as minister responsible for Gazprom, the then 35-year-old Medvedev dispatched the old guard within nine months, a feat acknowledged even by his critics with awe.

Already it is clear that Dmitry Medvedev will not push over – not at home and not abroad. A former colleague described him in the words that Andrei Gromyko used of Mikhail Gorbachev – as having "a nice smile, but iron teeth". Medvedev may be Russia's future, but it will not be a future without teeth.

A Life in Brief

Born Leningrad, 14 September 1965 to a lecturer and a teacher.

Family Married Svetlana, his teenage sweetheart, one son.

Education Leningrad State University, law degree and master's in law.

Interests hard rock (Black Sabbath and Deep Purple), surfing the internet, fitness (swims and exercises every day).

He says "We should be strong like our athletes, and intelligent, and modern."

"We are well aware that no non-democratic state has ever become truly prosperous."

"Freedom is better than lack of freedom – this principle should be at the core of our politics."

They Say "Dmitry Medvedev knows very well what to do. But Vladimir Putin also knew very well what to do, but did nothing." Yevgeny Yasin, former Russian minister of the economy

"If Medvedev really wants to set the country on the path of liberal reform... he will have to demonstrate extreme force of character, flexibility and caution." Viktor Yerofeyev, Russian writer

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