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Home News Medvedev: ‘seat-warmer’ president in mentor’s shadow

Medvedev: ‘seat-warmer’ president in mentor’s shadow

Published on 24/09/2011

Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president attempted to launch a campaign of modernisation to pull the country out of its post-Soviet stagnation but never escaped the shadow of his dominant mentor Vladimir Putin.

He is now set to be the only one term president in post-Soviet Russian history after proposing that Putin stand in presidential elections in 2012, although he may yet take on the post of prime minister.

Medvedev assumed power in May 2008 as Russia’s third president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, taking on a country battling an outdated economic model, an insurgency in the North Caucasus and waning global influence.

His trademark modernisation programme has been marked by some of the boldest statements ever by a Kremlin leader but has also been mocked by commentators and bloggers for being short on actions.

“Dmitry Medvedev did not justify expectations. There is not the slightest hint that a single one of the tasks he set was implemented. Instead of a reformer we got a seat-warmer,” liberal journalist Mikhail Fishman wrote in a scathing commentary in the Vedomosti daily.

While liberals and the West hoped Medvedev, 46, would reverse the increase in state control and erosion of civil liberties during Putin’s eight-year rule, he showed little desire for a radical break with the legacy of his predecessor.

A little-known Kremlin official before 2008, Medvedev won the elections on the back of Putin’s support and his first act on taking office was to appoint the Russian strongman as prime minister.

He showed no fear, however, in putting his mandate in a historic context, saying Russia’s economy had reached a “dead end” and required urgent reform if the country was going to move forwards.

In one remarkable speech, he even seemed to compare himself to reforming Tsar Alexander II who in 1861 ordered the historic emancipation of the serfs and would ultimately be assassinated.

“We are trying to change our economy and change our political system. In essence we are continuing a political course that was set 150 years ago. Freedom cannot be put off for another day,” he said.

But cynics pointed out that such words counted for little when Russia was still dominated by Putin and Medvedev himself sought to play down the idea there was any radical difference in their visions of Russia’s future.

“Vladimir Putin — who is my colleague and old friend — and I still largely represent the same political force,” Medvedev said in an interview with the Financial Times in June.

In March, Medvedev lashed out at Putin for the prime minister’s characteristically undiplomatic remarks on the Western campaign on Libya.

But after apparently burning his fingers by being overly bold, he retreated into the routine expressions of harmony and the two were soon pictured symbolically enjoying a bicycle ride together.

Medvedev, a lawyer by training, met Putin in the early 1990s when they were both working in the mayor’s office of their native Saint Petersburg and owes his entire political career to the former KGB agent.

Putin took his protege to Moscow after being appointed prime minister in 1999 and Medvedev rapidly rose to be chairman of gas giant Gazprom and also chief of staff at the Kremlin and then first deputy prime minister.

But in contrast to Putin, Medvedev has sought to promote a welcoming image for a country still regarded with suspicion by much of the world and championed a “reset” in relations with the United States.

Yet his smiling face in talks with world leaders has stood uneasily with sometimes jarringly tough statements at home which appeared an attempt not to be outdone by Putin in the tough-talking stakes.

Keen to leave behind a legacy in Russia, Medvedev ordered the building of a technology hub for his modernisation drive in the town of Skolkovo outside Moscow.

Often seen proudly clutching his iPad — a souvenir from a visit to Silicon Valley — his presidency also saw a surge in activity by Russians on the Internet which may have far-reaching consequences in the future.

One of the most far-reaching moves of his presidency was an overhaul of powerful regional governors which saw the departure of several local strongmen who had been in power since the 1990s including Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

He also sent Russian troops deep into Georgian territory in the 2008 war with Tbilisi, a decision that temporarily wrecked relations with the West but one the president insisted he took on his own.

But perhaps symbolically, Russia’s best-known prisoner — the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky — remained in jail, despite hopes Medvedev could release him to show the sincerity of a vow to end legal nihilism in Russia.

Medvedev seemed to bristle when Putin bluntly stated that a “thief must be in prison” but the ex-Yukos CEO and Kremlin foe still received a new jail term last year and is due to stay in prison until 2016.