Medvedev: The man who kept the seat of power warm for Putin

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His four years as president are four days from an end. But why did Dmitry Medvedev fail to transcend his mentor and become a Russian figurehead in his own right?

Moscow

Previous inhabitants of the Kremlin, whether it be Ivan the Terrible, Joseph Stalin or Vladimir Putin, have tended to inspire both awe and fear. Even with Boris Yeltsin in the late, vodka-infused years, there remained an aura of residual respect for someone who was essentially the most powerful person in the biggest country in the world. But with four days left of his four-year tenure as President, Dmitry Medvedev evokes rather different emotions in his citizens.

The state-controlled news television still gives staid accounts of the President chairing cabinet meetings and meeting the people. But, online, a sphere that the iPad-toting Mr Medvedev himself has been keen to champion, it is a different story: Mr Medvedev is met by many Russians with indifference at best, if not outright derision. On Twitter, users refer to him with the hashtag "the pitiful one".

Mr Medvedev, a diminutive lawyer who has known Vladimir Putin for two decades, was carefully manoeuvred into the Kremlin by Mr Putin in 2008, when the latter had to step aside due to a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms. Throughout his rule, the majority of people have assumed he was a seat-warmer for Mr Putin, who as Prime Minister still appeared to be calling the shots.

For a while, Kremlinologists looked hard for signs of cracks appearing in the ruling "tandem"; for disagreements between the two men and signs Mr Medvedev might be ready to escape his mentor's shackles and strike out on his own. There was talk that if he won a second term as President, he might be able to enact real reform. Then, last September, it was announced that Mr Putin was coming back after all. Mr Medvedev, apparently, had been a lame duck all along. The quiet giggling at his awkward attempts to emulate Mr Putin's televised stunts and tough talking ended in a sense of disappointment.

Even his wardrobe choices now provoke derision. The ruling duo attended this week's May Day parade together, and while Mr Putin wore a sombre black trenchcoat, Mr Medvedev skipped along in a tight-fitting double-breasted white jacket that came to just above the knee. It looked like the fashion choice one might expect from someone riding a bicycle in Shoreditch, rather than the attire of a President of a nuclear power at a labour march. Within hours, the Russian blogosphere went into overdrive at the President's failed attempt to look cool. A photo went viral of Mr Medvedev in the coat juxtaposed with a photo of supermodel Kate Moss in a similar number.

One of the most popular satirical digs at the Russian President has been on Twitter. Mr Medvedev set up his Twitter account during a visit to the company's headquarters in San Francisco in 2010. He soon began tweeting both official state business and his personal thoughts, which were meant to burnish his image as a modernising President.

Shortly afterwards, a spoof account was set up, entitled Kermlin instead of Kremlin. The account, which ruthlessly lampooned Mr Medvedev's personality and political programme, soon became one of the most popular Twitter feeds in Russia, and has around 300,000 followers. Its authors are a young Russian couple called Sasha and Masha (they do not want to reveal their real names). Part of the reason it was so popular, says Masha during a meeting at a Moscow Italian restaurant, is that Mr Medvedev is such a laughable figure. "There used to be a tradition in Soviet schools that one day per year, the teachers would pick the best students, and those students would teach the class for the day," she says. "Medvedev has always looked like this, with those big eyes and that silly expression. He looks like the student who has been put in charge of the class."

At the beginning, there were signs of hope. In a 2009 article entitled "Go, Russia!" Mr Medvedev outlined his vision of the country. The article, which was published not in one of the musty state-backed newspapers but on a popular news website, complained about Russia's "primitive, resource-based economy and chronic corruption".

In a lengthy manifesto that ran to several thousand words, the new President outlined many painful areas for the country, and promised changes that would help to "build a new Russia". Mr Putin, in his own way, had also spoken many times about fighting corruption and gradual democratisation. But there had never been anything as stinging in its criticism and as forthright in stating that democracy and rights protection were the way forward.

As the four years of his presidency went on, however, there was an increasing sense that this was a President of words and not of deeds. Last week, as something of a farewell gesture, Mr Medvedev engaged in a televised interview session with five journalists, to sum up the results of his four years in charge. In addition to the state-controlled channels, the independent TV Rain also got to send a correspondent, and the resulting questions were much more lively than anything Mr Putin has ever subjected himself to. But he dodged tough questions and complained that "this discussion is turning out to only be about politics" – a bizarre objection for a President. The interview was the perfect reflection of the Medvedev era – apparently more liberal, but no real results to show for it.

Some observers suggest that, in the scheme of Russian history, Mr Medvedev may have played a greater role than anyone yet realises, even if unwittingly. In a comment article yesterday, the leading analyst Yevgeny Gontmakher said that, in identifying the key problems with the current political system but failing to tackle them, Mr Medvedev has started an irreversible trend. Educated Russians no longer trust the authorities, according to Mr Gontmakher, and when they were told that Mr Medvedev was not returning for a second term in which he could have enacted his ideas for a new Russia, they began to take action, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest against Mr Putin and his United Russia party in recent months.

"This lack of trust in the authorities is the foundation of future political change," wrote the analyst. "When this will happen – in a year, or in two, or in three – nobody knows. But the wave of activism we've seen has not gone anywhere... People are just putting up with authorities until they have a convenient reason not to."

As for Mr Medvedev himself, he is due to become Prime Minister in a job-swap with Mr Putin, but that job is likely to return to the drab technocratic hue it had before Mr Putin appropriated it. "We'll all forget about him so quickly," says Masha of the Kermlin Twitter duo.

"It's like when it snows in the night and the machines come and clear it up before dawn. When you wake up, there is a vague feeling it has been snowing, but hardly any sign of it. That's the level of impact he has made."

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