- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

As Russians vote this weekend to elect a new president, the only suspense left is whether the all-but-declared winner — Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — will really be in charge.

Polls say the self-effacing 42-year-old Mr. Medvedev, a lawyer by training, will run up a huge majority in his first run for electoral office, a victory based almost exclusively on the endorsement by the man he is poised to succeed — Vladimir Putin.

But with Mr. Putin himself set to become prime minister, Russian analysts and Western observers alike wonder whether Mr. Medvedev can emerge from the shadow of his longtime patron. It is a time when Russia faces massive challenges at home and a steadily worsening relationship with the United States and the West.

“The people of Russia aren’t choosing their next president on Sunday,” said Hudson Institute Russian scholar Michael McFaul. “Vladimir Putin did that for them a couple of months ago.”

Mr. Putin, a one-time KGB agent who remains immensely popular after eight years in office, has said he backed Mr. Medvedev because he was confident his aide and adviser would carry on what in Russia is now called the “Putin plan.”

Asked about his possible role as prime minister, Mr. Putin said, “There are enough powers to go around, and [Mr. Medvedev] and I will divide them between ourselves, if the voters give us such a chance. I can assure you that there will be no problems in this respect.”

But Mr. Medvedev, whose duties included chairing the board of Russia’s massive Gazprom energy monopoly, is so little known outside Russia that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stumbled over his name in a debate this week. Both she and rival Sen. Barack Obama said they knew little of him beyond his ties to Mr. Putin.

President Bush, in a White House press conference yesterday, admitted, “I don’t know much about Medvedev, either.”

Mr. Bush said he was not even sure who will represent Russia at the summit of Group of Eight leaders in Japan this summer.

International monitors have been sharply critical of the Russian election campaign, charging that opposition parties have been marginalized and harassed, while Mr. Medvedev has received fawning coverage on pro-government television.

Endorsed by four pro-Putin parties, Mr. Medvedev has declined to debate with his three official rivals, who include a Communist, an ultranationalist and a fringe pro-Western candidate polling only 1 percent in recent election surveys.

The St. Petersburg native has let slip some personal details during the campaign.

He married his grade-school sweetheart, an economist by training who Mr. Medvedev insisted stay at home to raise their only son. He was baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith at age 23. He’s a fan of subversive Soviet-era author Mikhail Bulgakov, British hard-rock bands Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and the local St. Petersburg soccer team.

Mr. Putin is a judo master, but Mr. Medvedev swims twice a day and joked recently of the “disastrous shortage of swimming pools in this country.”

Perhaps more intriguing is what isn’t on Mr. Medvedev’s resume. He never served in the army, never ran for political office, and has no ties to the KGB or its successor security organizations — unlike so many Putin appointees.

Nikolay Petrov, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Putin chose the charisma-challenged Mr. Medvedev precisely because of his low profile and reliance on his patron.

Mr. Medvedev “doesn’t have a power base of his own. He was the weakest of the front-runners for the job,” Mr. Petrov said.

The new president will inherit a host of prickly foreign-policy issues, including clashes with the Bush administration over Kosovo, NATO expansion, missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and the state of human rights and civil liberties in Russia.

But Dmitry Peskov, a longtime spokesman for Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, said the new president would much rather focus on Russia’s domestic problems, including massive health, labor, education and infrastructure shortcomings, than pick new fights abroad.

“Russia right now is the last country in the world interested in confrontation,” he said.

Mr. Medvedev has spoken of the need for Russia to be respected in the world but focused largely on challenges closer to home. Some Western analysts have spoken hopefully on his recent speeches praising the rule of law, a free press and the need to challenge rampant corruption.

“Words are cheap,” Mr. McFaul noted, “but those are still striking words.”

Mr. Medvedev insists he will not be a puppet of his powerful and popular predecessor.

“There is no such thing as two, three or five centers” of power, he told the Russian magazine Itogi in an interview this month. “The president controls Russia, and according to the Constitution, there can be only one.”

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