In Putin's shadow, Russia inaugurates Medvedev

The new president, a savvy lawyer who likes Led Zeppelin, faces rising corruption and decaying national infrastructure.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    ENIGMATIC LAWYER: Dmitri Medvedev takes the presidency Wednesday from Vladimir Putin, under whom he's worked for much of the last 15 years. Though holding high positions, he's stayed largely in the background, making him largely unknown to the public.
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Dmitri Medvedev was inaugurated as post-Soviet Russia's third president Wednesday in a lavish Kremlin ceremony designed to emphasize the near czarlike authority of the office he now holds.

But Mr. Medvedev, a youthful apparatchik who favors
Deep Purple and seeks Internet-savvy underlings for his administration, will face a daunting list of issues as he begins to wield that power.

First among these, experts say, is an urgent need to clarify his relations with the man who will formally hand him the keys to the Kremlin on Wednesday: his longtime mentor, Vladimir Putin.

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In any effort to assert himself, experts from across the political spectrum suggest, Medvedev will have little choice but to confront many accumulated problems left behind by Mr. Putin, which include spiraling corruption, growing authoritarianism, and decaying national infrastructure.

"It is absolutely necessary for Medvedev to move from being the elected president to being the real one," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and coauthor of "Putin: The Bottom Line" – a scathing assessment of Putin's legacy whose distribution has been largely suppressed in Russia. "Our Constitution gives the president almost unlimited authority to rule ... but how to assume this power is an immediate practical problem for Medvedev."

How he goes about that could shed light on whether his tenure will mark a departure from Putin's approach, or, as he himself has pledged, to build upon the successes of the Putin era.

"Since the executive branch tends to be supreme in Russia, I believe Medvedev has every opportunity to bring a new impulse to Russian reforms," says Yaroslav Lissovolik, chief economist for Deutsche Bank in Russia.

One approach for Medvedev might be to launch a serious crusade against corruption. Last year Russia sank to 143rd place from 127th in 2006 in the Berlin-based Transparency International's global corruption rankings of about 160 countries (the higher the number, the worse the record). According to the independent Moscow-based InDem Foundation, businesses now spend about 7 percent of their income on bribes.

"Putin is synonymous with corruption, so for Medvedev, fighting corruption means breaking with Putin," says Mr. Nemtsov. "The one 'success' of the Putin era, economic growth, is under threat from the tremendous growth of corruption," he adds.

While not everyone holds Putin personally responsible for the corruption, most agree it's a major problem. Sergei Markov, a Putin supporter and parliamentarian from the Putin-led United Russia (UR) party says Medvedev must "send signals that he will take the fight against corruption seriously. I think Putin will approve of this and will use the Medvedev presidency to break his own ties with some corrupt people whom he's grown tired of."

Medvedev could also challenge Putin by moving to curb the ballooning UR party – now led by Putin – which has acquired a dominant two-thirds majority in the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) as well as control over most regional legislatures.

"This one-party system is good for Putin and his circle, but it's becoming a huge headache for Russia," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "A prolongation of [Putin-era] authoritarianism can lead us back to Soviet times. Medvedev needs to get some liberal opposition into the system, or else he'll be controlled by Putin."

Thanks to a youthful lifestyle (see sidebar), plus a few favorable public references to free markets and democracy, some observers have hailed Medvedev as a closet liberal. Others say his views, which remain largely unknown, are best judged by his loyal service in a Kremlin administration under which direct election of representatives was replaced by appointments; journalists faced increasing pressure to toe the official line; and civil society was restricted, sometimes severely.

"I really doubt that Medvedev is a liberal; like Putin he's probably more of a pragmatist," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the independent Panorama think tank in Moscow and coauthor of a book on Putin. "I expect him to exhibit the same authoritarian inclinations that Putin did."

Mr. Markov argues that Medvedev could act to correct deficiencies in Putin's legacy rather than by confronting his former boss.

"Russian gross domestic product grew by 80 percent under Putin, but Russia's mileage of good paved roads, for example, has decreased by 3 percent in the same period," he says. "Medvedev can make his mark by finding ways to use our gas and oil profits to build infrastructure and high-tech industries."

For the past eight years Medvedev has served as a top official of the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom, as Kremlin chief of staff, and deputy prime minister in charge of social projects. The first Russian leader too young to have had an official Soviet-era career, he owes his imminent position as president more to bureaucratic machinations than the give-and-take of public politics.

Although he was handpicked by Putin, under whom he worked in the St. Petersburg city administration before being brought to the Kremlin in 1999, most experts believe Medvedev is no lightweight. A law professor and author of two legal textbooks, he managed to become wealthy during the turbulent 1990s by working as a legal consultant to businessmen.

"Medvedev is a real professional lawyer, and [until he came to Moscow in 1999] made no secret of the fact that he is a millionaire," says Mr. Pribylovsky.

But despite his experience, he's had little public exposure. To move out from under Putin's shadow, Medvedev will have to assert himself quickly and firmly, experts say.

"Medvedev has to take the reins of government into his hands, create his own team, and clarify his relations with Putin," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia's political elite. "Right now Russia's bureaucrats are waiting, trying to figure out how power will fall and fearing for their own futures. They need a clear signal from the top, one they can understand. They're used to obeying, and once it's made clear [who is in charge] they will follow."

Russia's Constitution and political traditions may seem clear, but experts say too little is known about Medvedev's character. "Does Medvedev have the political will to make himself the real president?" says Nemtsov. "This remains the key mystery."

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