The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dmitry Medvedev was Putin’s political wingman for years. Now Putin wants some distance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev leave a cabinet meeting in Moscow on Wednesday. (Dmitry Astakhov/AP)
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The video drone lazily scanned over a palatial mansion with towers, glass houses, sweeping lawns, a pool, a garage, a small forest and a lake. The video, which was aired on YouTube in 2017 by Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, alleged that the mansion belonged to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, along with holdings that included yachts, vineyards, palaces and country homes.

One of his estates even had a complex for ducks and other waterfowl, it was claimed.

The video, viewed millions of times, sparked protests in more than 80 cities across Russia in 2017, with some demonstrators carrying posters of ducks. Not only was Medvedev seen as often ineffectual and awkward, manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but, according to Navalny, he also lived the life of a billionaire.

Medvedev denied the claims, but they proved politically damaging, and he had trouble shaking off similar accusations of living amid super-opulence when they surfaced in December.

In a video, Navalny claimed that Medvedev had used a commercial Bombardier jet worth $50 million for his wife’s private use.

“Who paid for this? Whose jet is it?” Navalny demanded in the video.

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Medvedev, 54, part of Putin’s St. Petersburg inner circle, has long been dominated by his more popular — and far more powerful — political mentor. For four years starting in 2008, he acted as a seat-warmer, nominally the president but with a more important function of enabling Putin to maintain his power behind the scenes before returning to the presidency in 2012.

Medvedev grew up in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, the bookish only child of a chemical engineer father and a teacher and later tour guide mother. He studied law and was inspired by one of his law professors, the pro-reform Anatoly Sobchak.

In 1991, he worked on Sobchak’s successful campaign to become mayor of Leningrad and joined Sobchak’s team in city hall. There he met and worked with Putin, one of the mayor’s powerful deputies.

In 1993, Medvedev married his childhood sweetheart, Svetlana Linnik. After Sobchak lost office in 1996, amid claims of corruption and nepotism, Putin moved to Moscow to work in the administration of President Boris Yeltsin, and in 1999 Yeltsin appointed him prime minister. Putin became acting president in 1999 and appointed Medvedev to a senior position on the presidential staff.

Medvedev ran Putin’s successful presidential campaign in 2000 and, in the years that followed, played a key role in the Russian gas behemoth Gazprom, helping reform and modernize the organization.

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In 2005, he was appointed first deputy prime minister. When Putin stepped down in 2008 because of the constitutional two-term limit, he tapped Medvedev as his successor.

Some hoped that Medvedev would emerge from Putin’s shadows and stay on as president. But Medvedev simply made way for Putin to regain the presidency in 2012, leaving Medvedev lampooned on social media as weak and pitiful.

Putin reaped popularity gains inside Russia after he annexed Crimea in 2014 and rebuilt Russian global clout in the Middle East and elsewhere. But Medvedev, as prime minister, was left as a convenient scapegoat for Russia’s domestic problems: a stagnant economy, low wages and pensions, and enduring corruption.

In 2016, when Medvedev visited Crimea, he blundered badly, brushing off complaints from elderly pensioners that they couldn’t survive on their pensions.

“There’s no money, but hang in there. All the best!” he said, before turning away.

The 2017 corruption allegations seriously hurt Medvedev, and many predicted that his career was finished and he would retreat to academia, but after Putin was reelected in 2018, he again appointed Medvedev as prime minister.

On Wednesday, Putin’s post-presidency strategy seemed to start taking shape. He accepted Medvedev’s resignation and that of his government. Hours earlier, he had outlined constitutional changes to trim the powers of a future president. The move appeared designed to pave the way for him to retain influence after his presidential term expires, possibly through a powerful role on Russia’s State Council.

One reason for his removal of Medvedev may have been fears that the prime minister’s unpopularity would drag Putin’s approval ratings down from their current position in the high 60s. An October opinion poll by the Levada Center found that 72 percent of Russians believed the government’s interests were not aligned with those of the population, and 53 percent thought the government lived off the people and did not care how they survived.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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