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A year on, ‘number two’ view still dogs Medvedev presidency

Moscow — It has not been an easy year for Dmitry Medvedev.

Since his inauguration last May 7 as Russia’s third president, he’s had to perform the country’s top job while making sure to "share" power with Vladimir Putin, his longtime mentor who is now the country’s prime minister.

Perhaps it is little wonder that most Russians still believe today that the power behind the throne is Putin and that Medvedev is little more than his sidekick.

A year into the job of president, Medvedev "is not perceived as the main person in the country," said Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of Levada Centre, a respected independent think tank and polling institute. "He’s perceived as the number two."

The Levada Centre’s most recent poll found that a third of Russians believed Putin wielded the most power in the country. Just over 12 percent said Medvedev was the chief, down from 16 percent in September.

A whopping 48 percent however said the two men shared power equally — precisely the perception the authorities who routinely extol the virtues of tandem governance would like Russians to have.

Anointed by Putin, Medvedev was elected in a carefully stage-managed race on pledges to fight "legal nihilism". His liberal-sounding slogans led many to believe that the youthful president would break from the policies of his predecessor, whom critics say muzzled opponents and curtailed freedoms.

But the 43-year-old Medvedev’s stern performance during Russia’s bitter war with Georgia last August and during another gas crisis with Ukraine in January crushed timid hopes the youthful leader would initiate real change soon.

When last November Medvedev announced he favoured an extension of the presidential term from four years to six years, the move was widely interpreted as a ploy laying the groundwork for Putin’s eventual return to the Kremlin.

And on the economic crisis that has engulfed Russia and the rest of the world, Medvedev has attended the summits but has left the sensitive work of crunching the numbers and cutting budgets largely to Putin and his team.

A recent string of highly-publicised — and strikingly independent — gestures however has left some observers wondering if Medvedev really is merely the Putin creature he has been made out by many to be.

In the span of one week last month, Medvedev granted his first Russian newspaper interview to the country’s most critical newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, he met liberal economists and he promised to amend legislation to help embattled human rights activists.

"His latest actions seem to suggest that something is happening," said Svetlana Sorokina, a member of the Kremlin’s human rights council and an outspoken journalist. "I would like to believe that Medvedev is acting independently — and is beginning to acquire a taste for it."

At a meeting in the Kremlin last month, Sorokina reiterated a call from human rights campaigners for the release of a former lawyer for the Yukos oil company, a mother of three who had spent more than four years in prison.

Within days, a Moscow court ordered the release of the lawyer, Svetlana Bakhmina.

The same day that ruling came down, Medvedev announced he was launching a blog on the LiveJournal portal, effectively stepping into the lion’s den as the space is seen in Russia as a bastion of free speech and dissent.

The series of what Newsweek magazine’s Russian edition termed "grand gestures" drew praise from the media, prompting New Times, an opposition weekly, to ask whether Medvedev was having an "affair with democracy".

Yevgeny Kiselyov, a prominent journalist and columnist for Novaya Gazeta, compared Medvedev’s apparent quest for reform to that of another Kremlin predecessor — Mikhail Gorbachev.

The comparison, some analysts say, has merit, and is supported by other reformist moves such as compelling top officials publicly to disclose family assets and sacking the Moscow police chief after a rogue officer went on a shooting spree.

The police chief’s dismissal marked "the first time in recent memory that a senior Russian official has been fired in the midst of a major scandal," said Sam Greene, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank. "Medvedev, consciously or not, is setting a new standard for accountability in Russia," Greene said in comments posted on the institute’s website.

Analysts contrast Medvedev’s policies with those of Putin’s presidency, when virtually no one was held accountable for the botched rescue operation during the Nord-Ost theatre siege in 2002 or the Beslan hostage massacre in 2004.

For political analyst Yury Korgunyuk, Medvedev is a skilled politician who is taking the long view.

"His goal is to go down in history as a political actor, a reformer, ideally a successful one."

Sceptics say Medvedev’s liberal gestures of the past year will for the most part remain mere blips on an otherwise dark radar.

"You need a microscope to see the changes" Medvedev has introduced, said Garry Kasparov, a chess legend turned anti-Kremlin campaigner.

Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre described Medvedev’s apparent efforts to change the way politics are practiced in Russia as mere "safety valves" designed more to ease social tension than to change the system.

Anna Smolchenko/AFP/Expatica