Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev: Two Faces of Russia
MOSCOW -- The world's economic crisis does not seem to have been unkind to you, Vladimir Putin notes as we sit down to a lunch that begins with calf's tail in aspic. "You all look well fed, well dressed."
It is a spy's gambit, one of several that the Russian prime minister advances subtly to compromise or co-opt 45 foreign academics, think-tank experts and journalists gathered in his opulent dacha at Moscow's outer edge. Don't be hypocrites, he is saying without saying. Don't try to trap me with do-good, abstract questions. We're in this together.
The next 150 minutes of good-natured discussion, political bombast about Soviet history and clever positioning leave little doubt that Putin still commands Russia, even though he gave up the presidency to his friend and aide Dmitry Medvedev 16 months ago. Putin makes clear that he preserves the option of taking back the top job in three years.
But a similar session with Medvedev last week -- which the president starts with lobster medallions and a heartfelt invitation to question him about the gloomy, Hamlet-like article on Russia's future that he had just posted on his blog -- suggests that Medvedev may be developing ideas of his own about that 2012 scenario.
By attacking (in very general terms) corruption and economic "backwardness" at home, Medvedev is carving out his own public identity within Putin's penumbra. And Medvedev notes with pride that he has had eight hours of conversation with President Obama, whom he will meet again at the United Nations and then at the Pittsburgh Group of 20 summit this week. (Putin got 90 somewhat tendentious minutes with the U.S. leader during Obama's July visit to Moscow.)
The White House sees advantage in playing to Medvedev, who turned 44 last week, and treating him as a Russian version of Obama: a young leader struggling to transform his stumbling nation. The Russian president reciprocates by suggesting that the future belongs to the two of them.
With George W. Bush, "we would talk for an hour and run out of topics," Medvedev says through an interpreter. But with Obama, "we can discuss anything. Obama talks himself, not his aides. He is trying to be independent, and that is what I am trying to do. . . . Our talks have been quite productive."
Ask Putin, 56, what has gone right with the United States under Obama, and his instincts kick in. He veers back to the past with undisguised rancor and wallows in eight years of missed opportunities.
"George," as he unfailingly calls Bush, "and I became friends, family friends. . . . But nothing was built on it." You can almost hear the former KGB colonel muttering under his breath: Imagine. I made friends with this guy and got nothing in return.
The openness of Putin's transactional approach to life is remarkable. The main job of an intelligence officer, a Russian politician recalls, is to recruit his opposite number to work for his side. Putin tried to turn Bush, failed, and will never forget or forgive. Obama and his team must recognize that a transactional relationship, with issue-by-issue bargaining, is what they will get from a Putin-led Russia.
It is more complicated with Medvedev. What to make of a national leader who complains over lunch that "corrupt bureaucrats run Russia" and that "our obsolete industry lives only from the remainder of Soviet wealth" derived from gas and oil resources? At times he seems a reverse Obama, asking his nation, "No we can't, can we?" Unless of course we change, big-time.
Some analysts see the Putin-Medvedev tandem as a mere good-cop, bad-cop act. But watching them in action suggests they have brought yin and yang to the Kremlin. Medvedev, an attorney, certainly acts as Putin's lawyer. But good lawyers influence their clients, maybe getting them to settle for less than the clients want or think possible.
Putin says that they are "of the same blood" and "have shared views." Medvedev visibly bridles when I ask him about that description. "I'm not sure about that. We'll have to do the tests. . . . We see some things differently," such as Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, he adds, without explanation.
The image that comes to me is of two leaders acting as separate lobes of the same brain. Putin represents the vengeful, hostile-to-change and sensitive-to-slight part of the Russian personality, while Medvedev personifies the impressive intellectual and literary interests of the Russian elite. It is that combination that encourages them to believe that together they will wind up ruling Russia for a quarter-century -- or more.