To go by his Russian media image, Dmitri Medvedev is a youthful, rock music-loving intellectual and a closet liberal who yearns to improve popular living standards. According to his official income disclosure, he earns just $71,000 per year and lives so modestly that his family's only car is a nine-year-old Volkswagen.
Mr. Medvedev is also the chairman of state-owned Gazprom, one of the world's largest energy companies, a longtime Kremlin insider, and Vladimir Putin's hand-picked choice to succeed him as president in polls slated for March 2.
Backed by two dominant parliament-based political parties, he sailed through Russia's obstacle-strewn registration process and officially kicked off his campaign with a speech to a Kremlin-sponsored civil society conference on Tuesday. Supported by Mr. Putin, who has agreed to become Medvedev's prime minister, he has pledged to make Russia one of the world's top five economies by 2020 and spread the country's oil wealth more widely by injecting billions of fresh dollars into social programs.
Medvedev's main theme was to maintain the political course set by his mentor, Putin, whose public approval ratings currently top 80 percent. In a survey conducted last week by the state-run polling agency VTsIOM, 76 percent of respondents said they expect Medvedev to win the elections, though only 53 percent thought he would be capable of "handling his presidential duties." In a separate poll done in late December by the independent Levada Center, 42 percent of voters said Medvedev's main strength was Putin's trust in him, while just 4 percent pointed to his personal independence.
"The main thing is continuing a calm and stable development," Medvedev told the meeting of Civic Forum, a gathering of Kremlin-approved nongovernmental groups. "Decades of stable development are needed, something our country has been deprived of."
The only surviving outside challenger, the liberal former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, saw his bid foundering Tuesday as the Central Electoral Commission accused him of falsifying 16 percent of his 2 million nomination signatures, and prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against him.
Mr. Kasyanov denied any fraud, and alleges that his campaign was targeted for destruction by the Kremlin.
The authorities "have conducted a coordinated campaign of pressure against me," he told journalists. "In numerous Russian regions, crude intimidation has been deployed against [my] campaign workers. People have been threatened, intimidated, and forced to confess to committing illegal acts."
Also in the running are Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, both of whom represent parties with representatives in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. A virtual unknown, Andrei Bogdanov of the tiny Democratic Party – who some experts say could be a Kremlin front man – also appears likely to receive approval.
"It's possible the Kremlin has decided that Kasyanov, who was Putin's prime minister for four years, is too knowledgeable about how things work and too unpredictable to allow in the race, so they've settled on Bogdanov as the token pro-Western liberal," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Other anti-Kremlin contenders have fallen by the wayside, including chess champion Garry Kasparov, who last month blamed authorities for making it impossible to even rent a hall in which to hold his nominating conference. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces, pulled out in late December, saying he didn't want to legitimize a "farcical" election.
"There is a great deal of behind-the-scenes struggle going on between insider interest groups, but any real competition between forces and ideas in the public sphere has been severely limited by the authorities," says Mr. Ryabov. "Therefore, these cannot properly be called 'elections' in the Western sense."
Medvedev, a lawyer who differs from many Kremlin functionaries in having no perceivable past links to Russia's security services, worked with Putin in the reformist St. Petersburg city government in the early 1990s and was called to Moscow as Putin's star rose in 1999. He worked as Kremlin chief of staff, was appointed chairman of the natural-gas monopoly Gazprom in 2000, and for the past two years has been deputy prime minister in charge of social projects.
Like Putin (whose own path to power involved sponsorship by the departing incumbent president, Boris Yeltsin) Medvedev has been careful to avoid any direct criticism of the current powers while staking out his own claim to be a modernizing reformer.
"These are our principles as I see them: first of all, freedom and justice; next, human dignity; third, prosperity and social responsibility," Medvedev said Tuesday. "Our goal is to combine Russian national traditions and the fundamental democratic values."
That's strikingly similar to Putin's own campaign rhetoric eight years ago, when he pledged to install a "dictatorship of law" and build a distinct "Russian democracy."
But Putin seems unlikely to fade rapidly away from the corridors of power as the unpopular and ailing Mr. Yeltsin did. Though some experts describe the combination of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin as a "dream team," others suggest it could develop into a constitutional nightmare in a political system that's accustomed to having a single strong leader.
"Putin and Medvedev have known each other for 17 years, but this does not mean they know each other in their new roles," says Alexei Pushkov, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Conflicts are bound to crop up," as their teams fight for bureaucratic control and influence, he adds. "If he sees that his successor is having some difficulty in running the country, then Putin's return (to supreme power) is quite conceivable."