By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
MOSCOW, Dec. 10 -- Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old deputy prime minister known as a rare moderate in a hard-line Kremlin, was put on track Monday to become Russia's next president when President Vladimir Putin endorsed him. The surprise announcement, all but guaranteeing Medvedev victory in an election next March, ends years of speculation about Putin's succession aims.
"I have known him very closely for more than 17 years, and I completely and fully support this proposal," Putin said, addressing the leaders of four political parties, including the ruling United Russia party, who said they wanted to nominate Medvedev.
The boyish-looking Medvedev now serves as a first deputy prime minister and as chairman of the state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Unlike many in Putin's immediate circle, he has no background in the KGB or the security services. His education was in law.
"It's a signal to the West that we want to continue communication and cooperation," Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said in an interview. "There won't be any radical changes in his presidency, but I believe Medvedev will be milder than Putin. He will largely follow the course set by Putin, but he is more oriented toward the Western model, building a democratic tradition."
Medvedev's name has arisen frequently in speculation about the succession, but he had appeared to fall behind other hard-line figures in recent months, as Putin grew increasingly confrontational in his relations with the West and his domestic political opposition.
Putin offered no explanation for his choice. Some observers here suggested that he wants someone he trusts absolutely. After laying down a hard line recently, the theory went, Putin may now be open to Russia pulling back a bit and reaching out to Western powers.
Medvedev is a native of St. Petersburg, as is the president, to whom Medvedev owes his entire political career. The two have something of a father-son relationship, according to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites. "It's almost a monarchical succession," she said in an interview, adding that Putin had "nominated his adopted son."
"Let's agree that there is such a thing as comradeship," Putin said in "First Person," a book-length interview published at the start of his first term. "I get that feeling . . . with Dima Medvedev."
Medvedev has never been elected to political office. But with the backing of his sponsor, who is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third consecutive term, he will almost certainly coast to victory in the March 2 election. A strong majority of Russians have told pollsters they will back anyone Putin chooses. And all the resources of state power, including control of the broadcast media, will be deployed to ensure Medvedev wins, even against what is likely to be a fragmented field of opposition candidates.
Kryshtanovskaya said Medvedev's dependence on Putin means that he will enter the presidency as a weak figure. In her view, Putin will play a major role as both adviser and protector while members of the political elite, particularly in the security services, reconcile themselves to a president who was not their first choice.
Since the baby-faced, 5-foot-4-inch Medvedev became first deputy prime minister in 2005, the Kremlin has carefully overseen the transformation of his image.
At that time, some analysts called him too soft and accommodating to be a serious presidential candidate. Over the past year, he has become noticeably more self-confident and assertive during public appearances, showing flashes of the kind of short temper that Russians love in their current president. He also lost some weight, got a new haircut and wardrobe, and worked on his wooden public-speaking style. He has mentioned a love of rock music and a collection of old LP records that is heavy on Deep Purple.
The choice of Medvedev is unlikely to end speculation that Putin will ultimately resume the presidency. "If Putin wants to return in two, three years . . . Medvedev will be the person who will without a doubt give up the path for him," opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov said on Echo Moskvy radio Monday.
But Bunin, of the Center for Political Technologies, argued that Medvedev would be "a real president," saying, "He is not a keeper of Putin's seat."
He added, however, "Of course, he will not be as powerful as Putin, at least not in his first term."
The only child of university professors, Medvedev entered Leningrad State University, Putin's alma mater, in 1982. He and Putin first worked together in the St. Petersburg city administration in the early 1990s.
Medvedev taught law at the university until 1999 when Putin, then prime minister, brought him to Moscow as deputy head of the government administration. Within a month, President Boris Yeltsin had resigned and Putin was propelled into the Kremlin. Medvedev went with him as deputy head of the administration, and he headed Putin's first election campaign in 2000.
Since 2000, Medvedev has also held senior positions at Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas behemoth that has been at the heart of bitter disputes between Russia and its neighbors over pricing. The company has been accused of using energy cutoffs and price increases to punish neighbors straying from what the Kremlin regards as a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union.
For eight years, Medvedev has been an unswerving Putin loyalist and, when called upon, a defender of Kremlin policies. He has said Gazprom is merely trying to wean former Soviet republics off unsustainable subsidies and encourage them to adopt free-market principles.
At the height of the widely criticized prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismantling of his company, Yukos, Medvedev defended the courts as "genuinely independent."
Until now, Medvedev had refused to address whether he would be a candidate for president, so little is known about his specific program for Russia.
But he has dismissed the term "sovereign democracy," coined by a Kremlin official to explain how Russia's heavily centralized system differs from Western democratic models. "I don't like this term," he said in an interview this year. "Playing up one feature of a full-fledged democracy, namely the supremacy of state authorities . . . is excessive and even harmful."
He has spoken of his modest background. "Just like everyone else, I lived in the kinds of apartments that used to be given to Soviet citizens, first a communal one and later a cramped apartment in St. Petersburg," he said in a television interview last year.
As first deputy prime minister, Medvedev was placed in charge of major social spending programs designed to improve health care, housing, education and agriculture. State-run television has regularly featured glowing footage of him cutting ribbons and handing out cash, including rewards for Russian couples who have more than one child.
"The image created for Medvedev in 2007 was the image of Santa Claus," said Kryshtanovskaya, of the Center for the Study of Elites. "A person who has a big sack and is traveling around the regions and giving presents to everyone."