March 3, 2008 / 11:35 AM / 12 years ago

Will Russia's new president be his own man?

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s next president will start off in a double act with his predecessor and mentor Vladimir Putin, but over time Dmitry Medvedev may evolve into a different leader.

Russia's next president Dmitry Medvedev smiles during a news conference at his election headquarters in Moscow March 3, 2008. The banner in the background reads "Together we win". REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer, won an easy victory in Sunday’s presidential election and lost no time in appearing on stage together with his boss at a victory rock concert in Red Square, pledging a “direct continuation” of his policies.

Analysts say it remains to be seen whether that will be the case once Medvedev gets his hands on the levers of power and his fingers on Russia’s nuclear trigger.

Putin himself was initially viewed as a safe option who could be easily manipulated by then-president Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle when he was plucked from obscurity in 1999 and thrust into the presidency.

Within a year, he had changed direction dramatically, centralizing control in the Kremlin, clamping down on free media and the opposition, and pursuing a hawkish line with the West.

Now Putin, a 55-year-old former KGB spy with a liking for martial arts and the military, has chosen a man from a different generation with a different style to succeed him after serving the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution.

Though Putin has said he will serve as Medvedev’s prime minister, some analysts believe this could be more to help his protege find his feet than to control him as a puppetmaster.

Georgy Satarov, an adviser to Boris Yeltsin and head of the INDEM think tank, told Reuters: “I do not think that if this scheme (of Putin as PM under Medvedev) is implemented, it is intended for any long period of functioning.”

“If in the beginning Putin heads the government, after... they are convinced that everything is stable, Putin will give that post to someone else.”

Although both men have heavily emphasized continuity, their declarations of unity mask big differences of style.

Often dubbed the most liberal member of Putin’s inner circle, Medvedev has no known security service background, enjoyed forbidden Western rock music during his youth and worked as a corporate lawyer before entering the government.

Putin, by contrast, was a career KGB official who served in East Germany and has never worked in the private sector.

When the new president’s favorite band, British rockers Deep Purple, were flown in last month to play at an anniversary concert for Russian gas giant Gazprom, Medvedev posed for pictures with the band afterwards, grinning broadly. Putin left during the interval and did not listen to the rockers at all.

And while Putin loves posing for tough-guy photos in military uniform and making macho statements in colorful slang, Medvedev prefers suits and cautiously worded, lawyerly speeches.

FREEDOM?

In a speech last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Medvedev stressed the importance of freedom, saying “no undemocratic country has ever become truly prosperous”.

Skeptics discarded his remarks as propaganda for a Western audience, saying Medvedev’s track record as a close Putin ally suggested a man who cared little for democracy or the law.

But Medvedev faces different challenges to Putin, who first came to power amid an economic crisis, a strong separatist rebel challenge and the risk of the country disintegrating altogether.

“Today’s president is not faced with wrenching the country out of the rubble of the 1998 financial crisis and the Chechen war, but rather with the challenge to shift the economy’s growth away from natural resources”, said investment bank Renaissance Capital in a note.

Although Russia is enjoying the ninth year of an economic boom unmatched in living memory, storm clouds are already gathering over Medvedev’s four-year term, which begins in May.

Booming imports and stagnant exports are quickly shrinking Russia’s trade surplus and will likely push it into the red within two years, according to economists’ forecasts.

“The economic growth of the last years has been based on rising oil prices and cheap foreign borrowing,” said Yevgeny Gavrilenkov, chief economist at local brokerage Troika Dialog. “External conditions will not be so favorable in the future.”

Such concerns, analysts say, lay behind a rare joint appeal in January by top economic figures in the government for a softening of the Kremlin’s harsh foreign policy course. Anatoly Chubais, head of the state electricity monopoly, said Russia could not afford in coming years to scare off foreign investors.

Government generosity with wages and pensions ahead of the election has stoked inflation, which is now running at more than 12 percent a year. Opinion polls show rising prices — especially for food — are among voters’ top concerns.

“Inflation is the factor that is not under the control of this administration and it will become the main issue that will spark a political crisis,” predicted Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Putin premier who is now an opposition figure. “By October, it will become unbearable for the public.”

Editing by Charles Dick

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