Russia's less-than-sure thing

There's no surprise in Russia's newly elected president – or is there?

More swimming pools. That, at least, is one change Russians might expect from their incoming president. Dmitri Medvedev, who kicks up waves twice a day, says the country lacks enough pools. But otherwise, Russians can expect mainly continuity: more autocratic Putinism, more oil-driven prosperity, more assertive foreign policy.

That, anyway, is the message of Mr. Medvedev's March 2 "victory," which itself was a foregone conclusion. Outgoing President Vladimir Putin, who will slide over to become prime minister, handpicked this loyal protégé as his successor. The pair assures citizens – and the wary West – that together they'll keep Russia on course.

But beneath such certainty lies a certain uncertainty – about political power-sharing, about Russia's economic future, and even about how it will project strength, especially toward Europe.

For starters, no one knows whether Medvedev, who is assumed to be Putin's lap dog, will eventually leap to the ground and discover his own legs.

Now, Putin controls the real levers of power. He has the loyalty of Russia's security forces, its parliament, and the media. A move by Medvedev to strike out on his own would cause a backlash from the elite. Besides, he's walked lockstep with friend Putin for years. Why would he question a course that's brought Russia prosperity and international respect?

And yet. And yet. Shared leadership is something new for Russia. Historically, a new Kremlin boss makes borscht of the man who put him there. And Medvedev has hinted at more meaningful changes than swimming pools. He has called for "freedom in all its forms – personal freedom, economic freedom and, in the end, the freedom of self-expression."

He has criticized overly state-controlled corporations (though he chaired a giant one – Gazprom). This former law professor also warns against corruption, and says Russia needs a more independent media and judiciary.

Putin, too, echoes some of these problems, without doing much about them. So, is this empty rhetoric, or does Medvedev have Putin's blessing for a measure of reform? Who knows?

Neither is it a sure thing that the good times will keep rolling for Russia. It's awash in oil and gas wealth, but if the world economy slows, so might its petro revenue stream. For lack of competition, oil production grew only 1 percent last year. Red tape and corruption hinder business, especially start-ups. The World Bank reports that only 5 percent of businesses have been created in the past 10 years.

Medvedev has also made very clear that he'll follow his predecessor's line in defending national interests, especially in Russia's neighborhood.

His tone with the West may be more honey than vinegar, but he opposes Kosovo's independence, for instance, just as staunchly as Putin. Some experts predict retaliation over this diplomatic defeat for Russia. But when, and where, and how? In Ukraine and Georgia, where it wants to forestall NATO membership? In the Baltic states?

For all the certainty of this transition, the West will be kept guessing. And Russians, who crave certainty, may find the future not to be as advertised.

Then again, who knows?

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