Despite Spotlight, Putin's Heir Still Shadowy

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 2, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG -- At the age of 23, Dmitry Medvedev went to a cathedral in this city, then called Leningrad, and was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. Even in the relatively liberal environment of Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, it was a quiet act of defiance for a postgraduate law student whose prospects depended on not straying too far from the ruling ideology.

"I think it marked the beginning of a new life for me," said Medvedev, 42, in a recent interview with the Russian magazine Itogi.

A year later, in 1989, Medvedev campaigned for Anatoly Sobchak, one of his law professors at Leningrad State University, who was running as an independent candidate for the Congress of People's Deputies and calling for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

"He was very young, and it was extremely dangerous for his future," Lyudmila Narusova, Sobchak's widow and now a member of the Russian parliament's upper house, said of Medvedev in an interview. "It could have ruined his entire future career, because nobody knew who was going to win. Nevertheless, Medvedev willingly chose this path."

Nineteen years later, Medvedev is about to become Russia's third president, succeeding Vladimir Putin, who has ensured the victory in Sunday's election simply by blessing Medvedev's candidacy. But after a heavily stage-managed campaign, bereft of authentic competition, many Russians wonder whether a Medvedev administration heralds a break with the rule of his popular predecessor or a caretaker government that will consolidate the centralization of power Putin engineered.

Will the democratic dreams of the young Medvedev resurface to challenge the policies he has helped implement as the sidekick of a president who has crushed political pluralism? Or will they emerge again only in speeches, never in practice?

"After the campaign, I can say I know nothing about who he is," said Georgy Bovt, editor in chief of Profil magazine. "He is intelligent, well-bred, educated -- that's all I can say. How is he going to manage the country? We don't know."

Medvedev's campaign declined an interview request. The candidate has been cocooned inside his campaign, taking few questions from anyone outside a select pool of journalists filing uniformly glowing reports.

Medvedev actually claims to have campaigned for only one day in the past two months; the rest of his appearances, he said, were part of his work as first deputy prime minister. The Central Election Commission, explaining the overwhelming coverage of Medvedev on state television compared with the scant attention paid to his opponents, which appeared to violate electoral rules requiring equal access to news media, said the channels weren't covering a candidate but a government minister.

A former law professor, Medvedev has begun to articulate a reverence for the rule of law, which human rights organizations say was applied very unevenly during Putin's tenure. He has also said he will tackle corruption, which Putin failed to do in any comprehensive way.

"We're talking about freedom in all its forms -- personal freedom, economic freedom and, in the end, the freedom of self-expression," Medvedev said in a campaign speech. "One of the key elements in our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of the legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power."

But Medvedev's essentially unopposed candidacy is built on Putin's increasingly autocratic system, which has cleared the landscape of any troublesome opponents.

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