By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 8, 2008
MOSCOW, May 7 -- Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old former law professor and protege of Vladimir Putin, was sworn in as Russia's third president Wednesday, creating an unusual dual power structure in a country long dominated by one man.
After a brief but pomp-filled ceremony in the gilded Grand Kremlin Palace, Medvedev immediately nominated his highly popular predecessor to be the next prime minister. Russians are watching to see how much power Medvedev will exercise and how much will move to the traditionally low-influence office of the prime minister.
According to the Levada Center, a polling organization, 67 percent of Russians believe Medvedev will continue to "act under the control" of Putin and his inner circle. The Russian parliament is to confirm Putin as prime minister Thursday.
A decade of freewheeling and often chaotic democratic rule in Russia followed the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin reestablished central control in the presidency while overseeing a withering of political pluralism. In the past year, he had orchestrated a transfer of his post to Medvedev, who had never before run for political office.
Addressing the nation after taking the oath of office, Medvedev said, "We must achieve true respect for the law and end the legal nihilism that is seriously hindering modern development." That echoed language he has stressed since he emerged late last year as Putin's chosen successor.
Russia "should be truly just and take care of its citizens to provide the highest living standards so that as many people as possible can consider themselves members of the middle class," Medvedev said.
That will be a daunting task in a country that, while flush with revenue from oil and gas exports, is still riddled with corruption, saddled with a vast and stubborn bureaucracy, and facing a debilitating demographic decline.
How he and Putin will share power remains unknown. "Medvedev was elected president, but will he now run for the presidency?" asked Vladimir Ryzhkov, a critic of the Kremlin and former independent member of parliament. "Will Medvedev fight for power?"
For now, Medvedev and his predecessor have stressed harmony and the continuity of policies set by Putin over the last eight years.
"It is very important to continue together the already chosen course of the country's development," Putin said in a short farewell address before Medvedev was sworn in. "I made a commitment to work openly and honestly, to faithfully serve the people and the state. And I did not violate my promise."
Medvedev swept into the Kremlin in a stretch Mercedes limousine shortly before noon. He walked along a red carpet through three halls of the Grand Kremlin Palace and past about 2,000 guests, including foreign diplomats, members of both houses of parliament and regional leaders from across this country.
With Putin, legislative leaders and the head of the constitutional court by his side, Medvedev placed his hand on a copy of the Russian constitution and took the oath in the golden splendor of Andreyevsky Hall.
As President Medvedev left the palace to review the Presidential Regiment, he allowed himself an occasional smile. For a man who was dismissed by some before the March election as too lightweight for the office, it had been an unexpected ascent.
In some respects, it began 17 years ago when he met Putin in St. Petersburg, where both worked in the mayor's office. Putin, who calls Medvedev by the diminutive "Dima," has described him as one of the few colleagues with whom he has a feeling of "comradeship."
Medvedev was born in 1965 in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, a home town he shares with Putin. Medvedev's father was a physics professor and his mother taught Russian as a foreign language. The new president met his wife, Svetlana, when he was in the seventh grade. They have a 12-year-old son, Ilya.
Medvedev's handlers emphasize his youthfulness and interests -- he practices yoga and is a fan of hard rock music -- as emblematic of a new generation of Russians.
Unlike Putin and many in Putin's circle, Medvedev has no background in the KGB or its domestic successor, the FSB. Nor has he served in the military.
But he owes his political fortune to Putin, who brought him to Moscow when Putin became prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. In the last eight years, most recently as first deputy prime minister and chairman of Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant, Medvedev has been Putin's faithful servant, with no sign of questioning the centralization of power in the Kremlin.
As a candidate, however, and in his six-minute inaugural address, Medvedev signaled a commitment to modernization and openness that, in tone at least, is at odds with Putin's more strident rhetoric. "Human rights and freedoms . . . are deemed of the highest value for our society, and they determine the meaning and content of all state activity," he said.
As president he can theoretically dismiss Putin, is head of the armed forces and sets foreign policy.
Western diplomats hope he will repair relations with the West, which have been damaged by recriminations over issues including the expansion of NATO, energy security and Russia's direction away from democracy.
Medvedev faces immediate tests at home, however, including rising food prices, an issue with the potential to galvanize the population, and dangerous levels of tension with neighboring Georgia over Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia. Medvedev also needs to diversify an economy heavily dependent on the export of raw materials and to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, from roads to hospitals.
Putin will remain an extraordinarily powerful figure. He is head of the dominant United Russia party, which controls both houses of parliament, and remains highly popular with the Russian people, who credit him with stabilizing and enriching the country after the upheavals of the 1990s.
"The model of power which Putin and Medvedev are testing is new for Russia," Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant close to the outgoing Putin administration, said in an interview. "Each of the centers of power will have to limit itself and at same time limit the other center. It is kind of a Russian system of checks and balances, and that's why it looks so exotic to us. Whether it works, we'll see."