Russia's Medvedev seeks new lease of life as PM

MOSCOW Fri May 4, 2012 12:23pm EDT

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin toast with beer during a visit to a self-service restaurant after taking part in a march to celebrate International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, in Moscow May 1, 2012. REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin toast with beer during a visit to a self-service restaurant after taking part in a march to celebrate International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, in Moscow May 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dmitry Medvedev has a chance to prove he is more than just Vladimir Putin's sidekick when he becomes Russia's prime minister next week, but expectations are low after he failed to deliver much of what he promised as president.

When he took over the presidency from Putin in 2008, he talked of enacting sweeping reform, but his four years in the Kremlin - which end on Monday when Putin is sworn in as head of state - turned out to be heavy on rhetoric and light on deeds.

Switching Russia to permanent daylight savings time was his only real achievement, his critics say, and he is widely mocked on social networking sites about everything from his height and dress sense to his policies and perceived weakness.

In a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, he even suffered the indignity of being described as playing Robin to Putin's Batman.

Medvedev has promised to push an ambitious agenda as prime minister too, a role he will be confirmed in by parliament on Tuesday. Pension reform, ending poverty and corruption, less red tape, better state governance and modernization are among the priorities he has identified.

But the Russian public, increasingly tired of having the same faces in power, is skeptical.

"Medvedev failed (to carry out reforms) with his many powers as president, so what do you expect now?" said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst.

Liberal critics cite Medvedev's refusal to pardon jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his inability to increase the independence of the judiciary, and his failure to ensure senior officers were punished over the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky as the biggest disappointments of his presidency.

Last month, Medvedev himself admitted that his campaign to stamp out corruption - a problem he repeatedly said was badly holding Russia back - had yielded only "modest" results despite the fact that he had publicly made it one of the centerpieces of his reforms.

"It would be a massive exaggeration to say that nothing is being done," Medvedev said of the battle against corruption during a TV interview. "But if we are talking of results, then they are, of course, modest."

His chances of long-term survival as premier will depend partly on Russia avoiding recession and political turmoil and on his ability to keep a lid on rivalries in the government.

But most of all, his future depends on his long friendship with Putin, which goes back to when they worked together in the St Petersburg city administration in the 1990s.

Putin has proved extremely loyal to long-term allies and needs someone he can trust to lead pension and healthcare reforms, as well as a costly overhaul of the armed forces.

"Medvedev is a prime minister who Putin can trust 100 percent," said Nikolai Zlobin, head of the Washington-based Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute.

"Putin will have no problem of political competition (if Medvedev is premier) ... no problem with a premier running an independent agenda and no problem with lack of trust. All these characteristics are much more important for Putin than professionalism."

During Medvedev's presidency, Kremlin watchers tried hard to expose substantive policy differences between him and Putin with little success. Medvedev spoke out against what he saw as over-centralization of Russia's political system, a 'vertical of power' explicitly built by Putin, and once chided his mentor for likening the U.N. resolution that allowed Western air strikes on Libya to "a medieval call to crusade."

But such moments were extremely rare and he was careful to never criticize Putin by name, repeatedly stressing that the two men shared the same views even if their tone and choice of emphasis sometimes varied.

Medvedev has said in a television interview that he expects that he and Putin will be in power for a long time. But he risks becoming a scapegoat if the economy runs into trouble and public support falls for the government, and for Putin.

"Putin will at some point have to pay his dues to the Russian people and sacrifice Medvedev," Oreshkin said.

PLACEHOLDER

Whatever good intentions Medvedev started out with when he was handpicked for the presidency by Putin in 2008 because of a constitutional ban on his mentor serving three successive terms, the results have been meager.

The iPad-carrying leader, who tried to represent a younger generation by using Twitter and Facebook, never escaped from Putin's shadow, who pulled the strings even in the technically junior job of prime minister.

Former Kremlin policy adviser Gleb Pavlovsky believes Medvedev genuinely wanted to launch sweeping reforms but that he gave up in the face of opposition from Putin and his allies.

"His main achievement was his decision to tie himself to the idea of a new policy line. His key failure was to abandon it and hand all the strings back to Putin," Pavlovsky said.

It is questionable whether Medvedev ever had much freedom to act independently since he forged no political constituency of his own and had long been dependent on his older ally.

A senior Kremlin official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Medvedev knew back in 2008 that he would not be running for a second presidential term in 2012.

Although not all Russians believe it, this is the official script both have stuck to since they announced at their party's congress last September 24 that Putin would be returning as president and Medvedev would become prime minister.

"There were absolutely specific criteria (on who should run)," the Kremlin source said. "(The key point) was popular support, which Putin had on a high level all the way and which never declined drastically over the past four years."

But, the source said, Medvedev had still wanted to pursue his own political agenda which he set out in an article called "Go, Russia!" in 2009.

The reason Medvedev's presidency brought few tangible results according to Kremlin insiders was because he lacked support from the political elite around him. Nor, they say, did his own popularity ever surpass Putin's, limiting his ability to act or change personnel and policy.

Critics said senior officials always felt they had to report to Putin, not Medvedev. The business elite, many of whom were aware of Medvedev's plans not to run long before the official announcement, also never stopped seeing Putin as Russia's primary decision-maker.

CIVIL SOCIETY

Reforms intended to make courts independent of the Kremlin were tarnished by the Magnitsky case, and prospects for the release of Khodorkovsky, whom the opposition considers a political prisoner, finally receded in his last weeks as president.

Whether it was a deliberate goal or just a side-effect of his talk of democracy, one tangible result of his presidency was that civil society matured as social networks expanded across Russia via the Internet.

This helped trigger large protests against Putin and against alleged electoral fraud between December and Putin's presidential election victory in March. But Medvedev spoke out for Internet freedom and civil liberties throughout despite the opposition using the web as a tool to organize the protests.

"Some may think he's done little, but it is evident that over the past four years we have seen the formation of a 'creative class' which is increasingly willing to take part in politics," a Kremlin source said.

In response to the protests, Medvedev pushed through limited electoral reforms and a law making it easier to register political parties, relaxing the Kremlin's grip on politics even though the opposition described them as token changes.

Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization after 18 years of talks is widely seen as the main achievement of the 'reset' policy which Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama baptized three years ago.

But it is Putin who has largely won the plaudits for WTO entry and, as on many other occasions, he has simply overshadowed Medvedev.

Summing up his term, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov said: "Unfortunately, Medvedev did not become a real president."

(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Osborn)

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