Russian President Dmitry Medvedev today pitched a better life for all Russians, and warned of a possible new arms race with the West, in his scheduled State of the Nation address to a joint session of Russia's parliament.
The speech, an annual affair used by Mr. Medvedev last year to roll out his signature policy of "modernization", was delivered amid rumors of escalating competition between himself and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to run as the establishment candidate in presidential polls that are now barely 16 months away.
Hence, many Russians intently parsed this speech for some dramatic move by Medvedev to distance himself from his more nationalistic and authoritarian predecessor and current rival, or some sort of rallying cry for his expected presidential re-election bid.
Supporters saw a smart presidential candidate tactically avoiding sensitive topics, while critics saw a man paralyzed by Putin's enduring power – a view strongly supported by a diplomatic cable just released by WikiLeaks.
Medvedev's vision: Better social services, and a Silicon Valley
Speaking to a Kremlin audience that included the cream of Russia's political elite and a poker-faced Mr. Putin, Medvedev steered away from most controversial issues and instead conjured up a wish list of material improvements.
These included better social services, reversing Russia's demographic slide by improving living conditions for families, making Moscow a world-class financial center and revamping Russian industry through hi-tech projects like Skolkovo, Medvedev's pet notion of transplanting the American "Silicon Valley" economic model to Russia.
"It certainly sounded to me like an election speech by a presidential candidate," says Leonid Gozman, co-chair of the small pro-business Right Cause party. "Speaking for myself, his speech convinced me that, of the two members of the governing tandem [Putin and Medvedev], it would be preferable for the country to see Medvedev come out on top."
However, he says, it was disappointing to see that none of Medvedev's earlier criticisms of Russia's top-heavy, corrupt, and authoritarian political system made it into the speech. Last week Medvedev spoke scathingly of the system built by Putin and issued what sounded like a call for political reform last week on his presidential videoblog.
"At a certain point, our political life started showing symptoms of stagnation," Medvedev blogged. "And this stagnation is equally damaging to both the ruling party and the opposition forces.... If the ruling party has no chance of every losing anywhere, it eventually 'bronzes over' and also degrades, just like any other living organism that does not move," he added.
But supporters of Medvedev say he did the right thing on Tuesday by sticking to bread-and-butter issues that resonate across Russia.
"This was a definite pre-election program and a claim on leadership of Russia's ruling class, though it was not meant as a challenge to Putin," says Gleb Pavlovsky, chair of the Kremlin-connected Foundation for Effective Policy. "If Medvedev had devoted his address to political matters, voters would have been disillusioned. They are waiting for answers to their priority issues like social issues, violence, children, and health care.... In Moscow people are always interested in politics, but Medvedev can't afford to turn his national address into a conversation with Moscow."
Critics see a missed opportunity
But Medvedev's critics say that by failing to utilize the crucial opportunity of the State of the Nation address to outline areas of disagreement with Putin, Medvedev may have played into his presumed rival's hands.
A poll conducted in early November by the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based polling agency, found that 84 percent of Russians believe Putin – though he holds the appointed position of prime minister – is as powerful today as before he ended his second presidential term in 2008.
"Frankly, that did not sound like a presidential address, but rather like a speech by a deputy prime minister who's in charge of social issues," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-chair of Solidarnost, an anti-Kremlin coalition. "He didn't mention anything about stagnation, or corruption in the political system. It seems that he is so afraid of Putin that he's paralyzed, and incapable of saying a word about the need for political reform."
'Two heads cannot be boiled in one pot'
The touchy and often inscrutable relationship between Putin and Medvedev has been an irresistible subject for US diplomats to speculate upon, as illustrated by this week's mass dump of State Department cables on Wikileaks.
One leaked cable from the US embassy in Moscow describes Putin as an "alpha dog," while another from 2008 disparagingly notes that Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman."
Perhaps the most colorful – and potentially damaging – observation can be found in a dispatch filed by the US embassy in Baku, which detailed a private conversation with Russia's close neighbor, Azerbaijani President Ilhem Aliyev.
"Aliyev said that he considers Medvedev 'a modern, new-generation intellectual,' surrounded by people whom he does not control," the cable reads. "He said that he has personally witnessed Medvedev taking decisions ... only to have [them] stymied by 'others,' presumably in the prime ministerial office. He added, 'Many high-ranking officials don't recognize [Medvedev] as a leader.' He said that there are signs of a strong confrontation between the teams of the two men, although not yet between Putin and Medvedev personally.
"'We have a saying in Azeri: Two heads cannot be boiled in one pot'," Mr. Aliyev is quoted as saying, apparently an earthy way of saying there will be trouble between Russia's tandem leaders.
Medvedev warns of an arms race with US
The president also spoke to Russia's foreign relations, which is a presidential prerogative – though Putin, whose job is officially limited to domestic policy, often speaks to international issues. Medvedev, who has championed a more West-leaning foreign policy, expressed concern in his Tuesday address that a potential failure to bridge differences between Russia and NATO over missile defense could lead to a fresh confrontation with the West.
"I want to say openly that in the coming decade we face the following alternative: Either we reach agreement on missile defense and create a fully-fledged joint cooperation mechanism or – if we do not reach a constructive agreement – a new round of the arms race will start." Medvedev said.
Experts fear that failure to bridge the gap between the Russian vision of a joint missile defense shield over which Moscow would hold veto power, and NATO's concepts of two separate systems that would share information between them, could put a swift end to the Russia-NATO honeymoon announced at a Lisbon summit earlier this month.
There are also concerns that the US-Russia 'reset' of relations could falter if the US Senate fails to ratify the START nuclear arms control treaty in the current lame duck session of Congress as Republican opponents of President Obama have threatened.