- - Wednesday, December 25, 2013

MOSCOW — When asked recently to name Russia’s No. 2 politician, President Vladimir Putin offered up as potential candidates the leader of the Communist Party, an eccentric ultranationalist and even a loyal member of the Kremlin-created parliamentary “opposition.”

Then as an afterthought, Mr. Putin cursorily mentioned Dmitry Medvedev — the prime minister and former president, the erstwhile “Robin” to Mr. Putin’s “Batman.”

“He has an extensive record of work in the civil service, and today he is getting involved in economic work, as well,” Mr. Putin said during his annual mid-December news conference — a tepid remark described as a “snub” by Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

Putin spoke condescendingly [of Mr. Medvedev], which is much worse than any insult,” political analyst Mikhail Rostovsky said. “He sent him a clear message: ‘Get used to the fact that your place is now with the ranks of second-rate or even third-rate politicians.’”

For much of the news conference, however, Mr. Putin avoided mentioning Mr. Medvedev by name, referring to him indirectly. As commentators hurried to point out, this is precisely the tactic the ex-KGB officer habitually employs when discussing his political foes, such as the de facto opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

Mr. Putin’s response underlined just how far Mr. Medvedev, 48, has fallen since the start of his one-term presidency in 2008, when he came to office pledging to “modernize” Russia and restore belief in the rule of law.

But Mr. Medvedev’s presidency was little more than a ploy to help Mr. Putin — who shifted to the post of prime minister for four years — sidestep constitutional limits on presidential terms.

Mr. Medvedev was unable to push through any meaningful reforms during his term, acknowledging late in his presidency that skeptics who predicted he would fail to eradicate problems such as ingrained corruption were “absolutely right.”

Since Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012, Mr. Medvedev has been sidelined, with scant mention of him in state media and widespread speculation that his days as head of government are numbered. Mr. Medvedev also has been publicly criticized by state officials, including Russia’s chief investigator, and even by members of the ruling United Russia party, which he leads.

Mr. Putin’s displeasure with Mr. Medvedev is widely believed to stem from his former protege’s measured support for the protest movement that emerged after the disputed 2011 parliamentary elections. Mr. Medvedev said last year that the demands of Kremlin critics were “reasonable” and urged authorities to “take action” on them.

It’s not only Mr. Putin and his allies who are taking potshots at Mr. Medvedev. His spectacular failure to implement change during his time in the Kremlin means he also has lost the support of Russians who swept into Moscow’s streets to protest Mr. Putin’s rule in 2011 and 2012. Notwithstanding Mr. Medvedev’s championing of human rights, several high-profile journalists and human rights workers were killed or beaten during his tenure, leading to widespread disillusionment with the would-be reformer.

“It was very symbolic for me that I was attacked during Medvedev’s rule,” said prominent protester and journalist Oleg Kashin, who survived an attempt on his life in Moscow in 2010. “Like many other people, I’d hoped we might see a different Russia under Medvedev. But Medvedev cynically exploited our trust.”

Although the odds may appear stacked against him, Mr. Medvedev has not given up on a return to the presidency. He has, however, ruled out running against Mr. Putin, who will be eligible to run for a fourth term in 2018.

Opinion polls make grim reading for Mr. Medvedev and his presidential ambitions.

A survey by the independent Levada Center pollster in November indicated that a scant 1 percent of Russians would be prepared to back Mr. Medvedev in any presidential bid. The figure put Mr. Medvedev behind Mr. Navalny, who had 5 percent support despite a state media smear campaign.

All of this is a far cry from the height of Mr. Medvedev’s popularity shortly after his 2008 election as president, when his approval ratings were near 70 percent.

Medvedev has lost everything possible,” said former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky. “I don’t understand why he is even talking about the 2018 presidential elections. He has no one and nothing to go into them with. Perhaps he is counting on Putin making him president again? But even Putin doesn’t have enough power to make him president once more.”

Although his government’s approval ratings are falling sharply, Mr. Medvedev is unlikely to be dismissed from the post of prime minister in the near future, as Mr. Putin is keen to avoid any major political shake-ups ahead of his showcase project, the Winter Olympics in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin insider, said the unthreatening Mr. Medvedev is a convenient scapegoat for Mr. Putin as Russia’s economy slows and authorities are forced to introduce belt-tightening measures. With Mr. Putin’s approval ratings at their lowest levels since he first came to power in 2000, he badly needs someone to blame, they say.

“Even if Medvedev’s government is removed, this will change nothing,” Mr. Belkovsky said. “There is no point in the sudden dismissal of such a compliant head of government. Medvedev is ideal as a lightning rod for unpopular decisions.”

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