Vladimir Putin defied that description. By May 2008, when his eight years as president ended, Mr. Putin had clearly and purposefully turned Russia into a "managed democracy," cutting back political and human rights, leading an aggressive foreign policy, and reintroducing state control of giant corporations, especially oil and gas. No question about intentions there.
But mystery again shrouds the Kremlin's high walls, as people inside and outside Russia wonder what direction it is headed in. The uncertainty poses a particular problem for the White House, which is attempting to press the "reset button" in strained relations with Moscow. It needs Russian cooperation on front-burner issues such as Iran and the war in Afghanistan.
Until recent months, it's been assumed that Mr. Putin, now the prime minister, still runs Russia; that his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, is his political lapdog. Mr. Medvedev, however, appears to be straining at the leash. Will he eventually slip his collar?
In speeches, he sounds as if he wants to steer Russia away from the Putin model. In his Internet manifesto in September, in his state-of-the-nation speech earlier this month, and last weekend, when addressing his colleagues in the United Russia party, Medvedev sharply criticized much of what his mentor had built up (without naming names, of course).
He's railed against state-run corporations and Russia's unhealthy addiction to fickle revenues from natural resources. He's warned about a foreign policy in which Moscow puffs up its chest (Soviet style?). A lawyer by training, he's come out swinging for rule of law, and he lectured United Russia – widely criticized for fraudulent regional elections in October – that it must learn to win elections honestly. Fighting worsening corruption is also high on his list (an estimated third of Russian gross domestic product goes to paying bribes).
All of this in the name of "modernizing" Russia – and all welcome by the West if his ideas are fulfilled.
But Russia's youthful, Internet-savvy president has taken pitifully few steps to back up his shake-things-up rhetoric, which stretches to the beginning of his presidency. He makes a dash here and there – this week, for instance, he ordered an investigation into the prison death of a lawyer who advocated for greater transparency in Russian business. He also fired the Kremlin's longtime media adviser – a Putin ally – for abuse of office.
Medvedev's inaction prompts speculation. Is he truly interested in a different direction from Putin, but simply not in a political position to carry out his plans? Or is he merely Putin's valve to vent frustrations within a managed democracy? Perhaps the two are really on the same page, but trying to satisfy different audiences.
Indeed, Putin has since endorsed Medvedev's state-of-the-nation speech, which emphasized the need for economic modernization. "I am sure this call reflects the mood of all Russian society," Mr. Putin said Saturday at the United Russia conference.
The truth is, no one really knows where the Putin-Medvedev relationship is going – perhaps not even both men themselves, though the answer should become clearer the closer Russia moves to the 2012 election, when Putin is qualified to again run for president.
This uncertainty makes trying to take sides a dangerous guessing game. The US has no choice but to deal with the ambiguity as best it can – to use its leverage where it can, to argue in both countries' interest where it can, and to disagree where it must.
Medvedev may be Russia's next Gorbachev. Wouldn't that be nice. But don't count on it.