The mystery of Vladimir Putin's preferred successor is solved: Dmitri Medvedev, from the president's St. Petersburg circle. As the world gets used to a new name, however, it should realize that behind it lies a familiar one, and the West will continue to be challenged by an assertive Russia.
Mr. Putin has endorsed a young loyalist and admirer who owes his career as first deputy prime minister and head of the state gas monopoly to his mentor. That Mr. Medvedev is a former law professor and not a former KGB man (as Putin is), makes him easier to control, because he has no powerful security faction to defend him.
Of course, the youthful Medvedev – slimmer, more dapper, and a more polished speaker than a year ago – still needs to be elected. But with the state and Putin (now one and the same) behind him, that's a done deal.
Exactly how Putin will perpetuate his influence is immaterial. He might become prime minister after his two terms as president expire next year, as Medvedev this week proposed. He might not. But Putin should be taken at his word that he intends to exercise power based on his "moral mandate," which is firmly anchored in his overwhelming popularity.
This week, analysts characterized Medvedev as a milder Putin with democratic credentials and a more cooperative attitude toward the West. Somehow, his Deep Purple rock-music collection is supposed to buttress this view, but remember, Yuri Andropov loved American jazz, and what difference did that make?
Medvedev's comments this week point to continuity, not divergence, from the Russia that Putin has built. He praised his friend's eight-year record, saying Putin had rescued the country from "collapse" and "civil war." The world's attitude toward Russia has also changed, he said. "We are not being treated like schoolchildren. People respect us and reckon with us."
Indeed, this is why so many Russians are grateful to Putin. The West would do well to remember how much Russians suffered from the political and economic chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years, and how humiliating it was to have NATO and the European Union lap up so many states in the former Soviet empire.
One can celebrate a stronger, more stable, and more prosperous Russia, but it's the way in which Putin has achieved this that's worrisome.
As is Medvedev's implicit approval of the Putin way: centralization of power and suppression of political and civic dissent; nationalization of oil and gas; threatening flexes of military muscle (Russia just suspended participation in a key arms treaty with NATO); and foreign policy by energy-bullying (at Gazprom, Medvedev participated in Eastern European arm-twisting by cutting off gas supplies).
Perhaps the kinder, gentler Medvedev will emerge later to put Russia on a course of greater internal freedom and external cooperation. Mentees have a way of finding their own voice and outgrowing their mentors, as Putin – a protégé of Yeltsin – himself must know.
But while Yeltsin struggled with physical health and dwindling political support, Putin is going strong. For the foreseeable future, he's in charge and Russia's petro economy will keep humming. This is the house that Putin built, and it will remain so.