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Medvedev misses chance to disprove WikiLeaks label: 'Robin to Putin's Batman'

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, criticized in a WikiLeaks cable as marginal, avoided sensitive topics in his national address today.

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However, he says, it was disappointing to see that none of Medvedev's earlier criticisms of Russia's top-heavy, corrupt, and authoritarian political system made it into the speech. Last week Medvedev spoke scathingly of the system built by Putin and issued what sounded like a call for political reform last week on his presidential videoblog.

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"At a certain point, our political life started showing symptoms of stagnation," Medvedev blogged. "And this stagnation is equally damaging to both the ruling party and the opposition forces.... If the ruling party has no chance of every losing anywhere, it eventually 'bronzes over' and also degrades, just like any other living organism that does not move," he added.

But supporters of Medvedev say he did the right thing on Tuesday by sticking to bread-and-butter issues that resonate across Russia.

"This was a definite pre-election program and a claim on leadership of Russia's ruling class, though it was not meant as a challenge to Putin," says Gleb Pavlovsky, chair of the Kremlin-connected Foundation for Effective Policy. "If Medvedev had devoted his address to political matters, voters would have been disillusioned. They are waiting for answers to their priority issues like social issues, violence, children, and health care.... In Moscow people are always interested in politics, but Medvedev can't afford to turn his national address into a conversation with Moscow."

Critics see a missed opportunity

But Medvedev's critics say that by failing to utilize the crucial opportunity of the State of the Nation address to outline areas of disagreement with Putin, Medvedev may have played into his presumed rival's hands.

A poll conducted in early November by the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based polling agency, found that 84 percent of Russians believe Putin – though he holds the appointed position of prime minister – is as powerful today as before he ended his second presidential term in 2008.

"Frankly, that did not sound like a presidential address, but rather like a speech by a deputy prime minister who's in charge of social issues," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-chair of Solidarnost, an anti-Kremlin coalition. "He didn't mention anything about stagnation, or corruption in the political system. It seems that he is so afraid of Putin that he's paralyzed, and incapable of saying a word about the need for political reform."

'Two heads cannot be boiled in one pot'

The touchy and often inscrutable relationship between Putin and Medvedev has been an irresistible subject for US diplomats to speculate upon, as illustrated by this week's mass dump of State Department cables on Wikileaks.

One leaked cable from the US embassy in Moscow describes Putin as an "alpha dog," while another from 2008 disparagingly notes that Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman."

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