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Medvedev speech: nod or challenge to Putin's upper hand?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed a Putin-Medvedev face-off in 2012. He may be trying to establish his place as a liberal voice in a Putin-led system.

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"If you want to see an election platform there, you can," says Mr. Mukhin. "If you want to see it as just another Medvedev speech, in which he raises the banner of liberalism, you can do that too.... My own view is that Medvedev is trying to establish his place – perhaps as the liberal voice – in a Putin-run system, not trying to challenge that system."

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In his St. Petersburg speech Medvedev explicitly attacked the state-led model of economic development introduced by Putin. "The result is state-controlled companies dominating many sectors, low levels of entrepreneurial and investment activity in these sectors, and ultimately, the threat that Russia’s economy will become less competitive in general. This economic model jeopardizes the country’s future. It is not my choice," Medvedev said.

As he has in the past, Medvedev suggested that Russia needs top-to-bottom "modernization" to turn it into a 21st-century economic powerhouse. Among other things, he called for accelerated privatization of key state assets, decentralization of political power, judicial reform, crackdown on corruption, and visa-free travel between Russia and Europe.

But when asked by the Financial Times whether he would consider running against Putin in an open electoral contest that would enable the Russian people to choose between his vision and his predecessor's, Medvedev's answer was clearly no.

"It is hard to imagine," he said. "The thing is that Vladimir Putin and myself – and Vladimir Putin is my colleague and an old friend – we represent, to a large extent, one and the same political force. And therefore, competition between us may be detrimental to those tasks and goals that we’ve been pursuing in recent years. Therefore, I think this would not be the best scenario for our country and for this specific situation."

Some analysts say they're growing weary of what looks like a stage-managed political spectacle aimed at creating the impression of public choice between Medvedev and Putin, while the actual decision will be made behind closed Kremlin doors on a timetable of Putin's choosing.

"After three years of a Medvedev presidency, we see no real changes in this country," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant, noting that Medvedev's frequent bursts of rhetorical reformism are seldom translated into action.

"If Medvedev had real political ambitions of his own, he should have expressed them openly, honestly, and assertively by now. But what we see is a polite gentleman, who smiles and gives good speeches, which are mainly meant for consumption in the West," he says.

"It's beginning to look like he only makes these speeches to save his own face. If he's on his way out, I guess he'd rather go looking like a reformer than like a puppet."


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