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Putin's heir struggles to come out of his master's shadow

Shaun Walker
Friday 29 February 2008 01:00 GMT

It should have been the moment when Dmitry Medvedev finally staked an aggressive claim to the Russian presidency and implored Russians to vote for him. His campaign team suggested it would be the perfect place to see him in action ahead of Sunday's election, where he is expected to win around 70 per cent of the votes.

But in the end Vladimir Putin was the star turn yesterday as Russian ministers and top officials gathered at the Kremlin to discuss the outcomes of the National Projects – huge social initiatives in health, education and housing that Mr Medvedev has led since their inception in 2005.

Mr Putin made a ceremonial entrance to the lavish hall that staged the meeting, gave an introductory speech, fielded questions and suggestions on the projects and gave a summary, saying that Mr Medvedev had "succeeded" with the projects but there was much work left for "us" to complete.

All that was left for Mr Medvedev to do was to give a brief speech, delivered in a steady monotone, that was high on statistics and low on charisma. Many sentences were prefaced with: "As Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has said..." Mr Medvedev reeled off future plans to build more sports halls, improve medical equipment and increase life expectancy. There was no sense that this is a man running for the country's highest office in three days' time.

Past acquaintances and colleagues have described Mr Medvedev as diligent, loyal and sharp-witted, but few would claim that Russia's next president has much charisma. While Mr Putin is an austere but engaging orator, the diminutive Mr Medvedev, with his soft features and measured voice, comes across as pleasant but utterly devoid of presence. He himself has admitted that he may appear to be "Mr Dry".

Many have dismissed Mr Medvedev as simply a puppet, with Mr Putin expected to continue calling the shots as Russia's next prime minister. It was clear from the start of his campaign that Mr Medvedev was running on a double ticket. He used his first speech after receiving Mr Putin's backing to say that if he won the election, he would continue the successful course of the last eight years and would ask its instigator to be his prime minister. A giant billboard near Red Square shows the pair grinning, and reads: "Together we will win!" Analysts say it is unlikely that they will have major disagreements, and that if they do, Mr Putin will retain the upper hand.

The 42-year-old Mr Medvedev first worked for Mr Putin in the early 1990s, when both men were part of the St Petersburg mayoral administration. Unlike many in Mr Putin's close circle, Mr Medvedev is not ex-KGB. A lawyer by training, he went into business in the mid-1990s, but came to Moscow in 1999 to work for Mr Putin. He has never left his side since, and has worked as Mr Putin's chief of staff as well as fulfilling his current roles as deputy prime minister and chairman of Gazprom.

But despite his submissive role, there is a noticeable discord between the words of the master and the protégé. While the enduring theme of Mr Putin's speeches is the stability and dignity he has returned to his country during eight years in charge, Mr Medvedev has talked repeatedly about economic and political liberalisation.

"We are fully aware that no undemocratic country has ever become truly prosperous," Mr Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. He also said in a major campaign speech in Siberia earlier this month: "Freedom is better than lack of freedom – this principle should be at the core of our politics. I mean freedom in all its manifestations – personal freedom, economic freedom and, finally, freedom of expression."

During Mr Putin's time in charge, Russia's television has come under state control and a combination of pressure from the authorities and self-censorship has muzzled most of the press. Whether or not Mr Medvedev's words about freedom of expression represent a genuine desire for change remains to be seen.

"Medvedev has very little political resources to conduct an independent political course even if he wanted to," says Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst. "Right now, everything is being done to ensure that he has as little power as possible when he takes over."

Some analysts suggest that political attacks on potential "liberal" Medvedev allies such as Finance minister Alexei Kudrin have been engineered by hardliners in the Kremlin keen to ensure that Mr Medvedev does not slip his leash. After all, says Mr Oreshkin, Russia has a long history of leaders moving from supposedly subordinate positions to take power, including Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.

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