Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Dmitry Medvedev arrives

1st March 2008 16:38

A giant Orwellian pre-election poster near Red Square set the tone and revealed the result of today’s presidential vote – before a single vote was cast.   “Together we will triumph!” read the Soviet-style

hoarding that would not have looked out of place in the Soviet Union circa 1980.   The poster shows a relaxed-looking Vladimir Putin, clad in a fighter pilot’s leather jacket, striding

into the future. A step behind him is Russia’s new president Dmitry Medvedev, grinning deferentially. In the poster’s backdrop the new Russia is seen rising -- a giant newly forged supertanker lays at anchor and

a new apartment block under construction reaches into the blue sky. The message is clear: Putin may be trading in his job as president for the job of prime minister but he will

remain in charge. It’s no coincidence that he is walking a pace or so in front of Medvedev in the poster -- that is exactly how it was supposed to be. Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor, friend and

longtime subordinate, will sweep the board in a presidential election today where he has no real rivals. But the change in Russia’s political landscape will be superficial. Putin had to relinquish the

presidency after 8 years in power because of a constitutional technicality. But the Putin era is not ending. It is merely entering a new deeper phase. 

Perhaps fittingly, the giant poster is fixed to one of Moscow’s real-life keynote construction projects – the rising Moskva hotel, whose iconic uneven towers feature on bottles of Stolichnaya vodka. A metaphor

for modern Russia itself, the Stalin-era edifice was controversially demolished by Moscow’s brash mayor and is now being rebuilt. Outwardly, it will look exactly the same as the old hotel and critics have cast its

reconstruction as a prime example of folly de grandeur. But the project’s backers are unmoved by such criticism. When finished, it will boast a new plush interior and a vast underground parking lot. In

the eyes of the increasingly swaggering elite it will be the latest in a long line of showcase symbols reflecting the country’s rising power and prosperity. As President Putin prepares to become Premier Putin

the country he has governed for eight years is booming. With oil prices above $100 a barrel Moscow has become one of the world’s most expensive cities, its centre crowded with Porsche Cayennes, Bentleys,

hulking black Hummers and restaurants and clubs catering to the super rich. The independent media has been gagged, and genuine political opposition marginalized, while the Kremlin

has used its absolute power to consolidate its grip on the nation’s fabulous natural resources. That in turn has allowed it to begin to claw back its lost Soviet-era geopolitical power parlaying oil and gas

wealth into political influence to the point where energy giant Gazprom and Kremlin Inc. look indistinguishable.     

But that is only half the story. Russia’s super rich are a tiny minority and while it is true that real incomes have risen the gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased too. The enhanced lifestyle of

the so-called emerging middle class is real enough but is largely built on credit. Putin is genuinely popular and is viewed as the guarantor of stability and slowly rising living standards. Many Russians are happy to

put democracy on hold in return. Many too remember the anarchic crime-ridden democratic experiment of the 1990s widely reviled as “dermocratia” or “shitocracy.” Large swaths of the population have not shared in the

gains of the Putin revolution though. Villages across the country continue to slowly die emptying of their aged hope-free inhabitants. Pensioners continue to scrape by on pensions of some 3,000 roubles (60 pounds

a month), and those that have been discarded by society crowd the capital’s stations and metro system. Without homes or a future, the dispossessed can be seen curled up in rags, their faces calloused and

their faces disfigured by years of biting cold and industrial alcohol. Average male life expectancy languishes at just 59 years. Starved of investment for more than a decade, Russia’s

infrastructure is also dangerously degraded. Putin and his allies have so far refused to spend much of the vast oil and gas windfall accruing in the country’s

treasury fearing inflation. That though will be the task of the Putin-Medvedev team – to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the next few years to meet people’s increasingly high expectations and to make

good on their rhetoric about Russia’s great power status. It will not be an easy task. In a country riven with corruption there are fears that much of the money could disappear into bureaucrats’ pockets.

Even if he is little more than a cipher as many suspect Dmitry Medvedev, the man Putin has anointed as his successor and the certain victor of today’s vote, will have his work cut out.

Yet nobody outside a tight circle of Kremlin insiders really knows who the mild-mannered former lawyer is.  Not that he is short of nicknames; Putin’s younger brother, Putin’s son, Putin’s mini-me, the Kremlin

dwarf – few of them have been flattering.   The one quality which appears to have qualified him in the eyes of Mr. Putin for the country’s highest office is his total loyalty to Mr. Putin and his proven track

record of implementing other people’s decisions. Once inside the Kremlin his room for maneuver will be tight in any case. Russia’s future has already been laid out in a package of nationalist-tinged policies

called “Putin’s Plan.” The country’s budget has been drawn up for several years ahead too and changing strategic direction would in any case be like forcing a super tanker to swerve.

If Mr. Medvedev wants to distinguish himself from Mr. Putin he has also chosen a strange way of doing so  -- by imitating his mentor in a fashion worthy of one of Hollywood’s most committed method actors.   

It would be funny if it were not bizarre. Mr. Putin has a penchant for wearing all-black outfits to shore up his tough guy image, usually with a black polo neck sweater and black blazer. It is a look that Mr.

Medvedev has been keen to copy. It gets odder. Mr. Medvedev appears to have mastered the art of imitating Mr. Putin’s clipped speech, his walk, the way he places his hands on a table, his fondness for reeling

off “how clever am I” statistics and his technique of silencing subordinates with terse semi-comic put downs. The fact that the two men are both on the short side completes the comparison.

“He reminds me of Putin,” is a common refrain when Russians gather round a TV set to watch Mr. Medvedev’s usually dry technocratic monologues. Mr. Medvedev appears to have worked hard to create a

likeness. Mr. Putin famously likes to swim twice a day and so too – by what is unlikely to be a coincidence – does Mr. Medvedev. Pictures of him from just a few years ago reveal the face of a dumpy bureaucrat. Now,

his suits hang off his lean shoulders as if balanced on metal hangers. Much has been made too of Mr. Medvedev’s supposedly liberal credentials and the fact that unlike Mr. Putin

he does not have a background in the Russian intelligence services. But analysts urge caution – liberality is a relative concept not least in Russia where the centre of political gravity is ultra

conservative. Most commentators believe Mr. Medvedev’s liberal credentials are a public relations sleight of hand designed to make him more palatable to the West. Only time will tell, they say, whether he really does have

a liberal bone in his 5ft 4inch frame.   What is clearer is that he will have to flesh out his commitment to democracy in deeds rather than just words if he is to be taken seriously.

The manner in which Mr. Medvedev rose to the pinnacle of power in Russia raises awkward questions on that front.

The election campaign that installed him in the Kremlin was a campaign in name only – even Russia’s central election chief admitted the contest was “uneven.”

There was no intrigue, no suspense, and no competition. The only uncertainty was whether other candidates might pull out in protest so one-sided and lacklustre was the contest.

Mr. Medvedev refused to participate in public debates with his opponents saying he was too busy discharging his duties as a First Deputy Prime Minister, hardly the behaviour of a committed democrat. His only three

opponents were politicians who looked more like they were making up the numbers.  Gennady Zyuganov, the ageing leader of the Communist Party, has probably fought and lost his last

presidential election. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultra-nationalist clown, is not even taken seriously by many of his own voters. And the other candidate – a self-styled liberal called Andrei Bogdanov rumoured to

be in the Kremlin’s pay – was notable for the fact that hardly anyone beyond Moscow’s apocalyptic ring road had ever heard of him.

Buoyed by the might of the state TV machine which slavishly followed his every move down to nights out at the cinema and visits to war memorials in former Stalingrad, Mr. Medvedev couldn’t go wrong. In

December pollsters put his popularity rating at just 24 percent – less than one month before the election that figure had risen to over eighty percent. Not bad for someone who said he was too busy to campaign.   

His democratic credentials have also sometimes seemed contradictory. In the watershed case involving the effective renationalization of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil giant Yukos he first urged

restraint only to later say that nobody should be above the law. What he really thinks on the subject is an enigma. He was also Chairman of energy titan Gazprom’s board

when the company became embroiled in politically charged gas disputes with countries such as Ukraine and in charge of Mr. Putin’s office when many democratic reforms were effectively junked. 

Little of real consequence is known about his background. A native of St. Petersburg like Mr. Putin and many of his top lieutenants, he qualified as a lawyer, married

a girl he met at school, has one son, and likes British hard rock bands Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. He has worked on and off for Mr. Putin in various roles. As his campaign manager, as the head of his

presidential administration, as his legal adviser when the two worked together in St. Petersburg City Hall in the 1990s, and in his cabinet. Now he will work for him again – as his president. Is

he Putinism with a human face as some hope or Putinism reprised as some fear? The Medvedev riddle is for now just that -- a riddle.