Kremlinology: Vladimir Putin has chosen Medvedev: the votes will follow

What does Russia's third President have in store for the West, asks Shaun Walker
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The Independent Online

A short, low-key man with a penchant for Black Sabbath seems sure to become Russia's third president after the current incumbent, Vladimir Putin, announced last week that he supports the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev to take over in March. That laid to rest speculation that Putin might seek to change the constitution so that he could serve a third term, but few doubt that, one way or another, he will remain in charge.

Mr Medvedev, the chairman of Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant, and a leading minister in Putin's government, has long been seen as one of the favourites for the succession. His anointment was quickly described as a victory for the "liberals" in the Kremlin over the "hardliners", even though the chairmanship of Gazprom hardly marks one out as an opponent of monopolies and state capitalism. In Russia, however, everything is relative. As one opposition columnist put it, "When you look at the other candidates, you think 'Thank God! It could have been so much worse.'"

But now that we have the name of the successor, who will without doubt win presidential elections with the backing of the omnipotent Putin and the full machinery of the state, a host of other questions remain unanswered. What role will Putin play? How independent will Medvedev be? Will foreign policy become more conciliatory? Will the hardliners fight back?

"I don't know why everyone is saying that Medvedev is going to have a liberal foreign policy," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. "We don't know anything about his foreign policy views." True but silence is seen as a positive sign at a time when snarling at the West is de rigueur.

Scarcely a week seems to go by without some example of Cold War muscle-flexing, such as the Russian navy entering the Mediterranean, or opponents of Putin being accused of manipulation by foreign powers. Last week the Kremlin moved to shut down the British Council, in retaliation for Britain's pestering over the Litvinenko case. In such an atmosphere, a more measured approach would be welcome: while a President Medvedev could not be expected to open his arms to the West, some of the provocative posturing might be toned down.

Still, the Putin factor will remain. In his first speech after receiving the presidential blessing, Medvedev extolled his boss and said that if he became president, he would want Vladimir Vladimirovich as his prime minister. There is no way he would have said this without Putin's knowledge indeed, it may have been Putin's idea.

In the "glass half full" scenario constructed by Kremlin-watchers, Putin feels that the time is right to pass on the baton to a younger, more liberal leader. He knows that Medvedev doesn't have the power base to control the vicious Kremlin in-fighting, so he will keep an influential post to protect him. If he does become premier, he will start gradually transferring more power to the parliament. Medvedev will gradually loosen state control over key industries, and, while continuing to stick up for Russia abroad, will avoid needless confrontation.

In the "glass half empty" scenario, Putin has chosen a man who has worked under him for the best part of two decades because he knows he can count on his loyalty. Maybe Medvedev will even be required to make the ultimate sacrifice and stand aside in a year or two, to allow his mentor to come back as president. As Russia continues to surf the oil-price boom, the Kremlin's hardball attitude towards the West will continue.

But Putin relishes confounding the Kremlinologists. So in a few weeks we could even hear that he's changed his mind, and it's not Medvedev after all.

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