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Russia: Who Is Mr. Medvedev?

Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.

Presidential candidate Dmitri Medvedev (left) with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Image: Corbis

I'm sure no one in Russia doubts that Dmitri Medvedev will be the next president. That became clear last December, when Putin announced him as his chosen successor. Without exception, Russian newspapers immediately began to report that only the Kremlin's man could continue "the course Putin had charted." Since then, though, there's been a curious about-face. State media has virtually stopped using words and phrases that link the two politicians. The closer the election draws, the weaker the link becomes. Even media outlets outside Russia are beginning to ask if Medvedev might be more than Putin's puppet.

The distancing of the two men went nearly unnoticed until February, when Putin gave his final state-of-the-union address at an expanded session of Russia's State Council.

Putin's speech, called "Russia's Development Strategy to 2020," outlined how the state would remain at the center of Russia's political future, that national sovereignty and security were paramount, and that large-scale investment in human capital would continue to spur economic growth. "Irresponsible demagogy and attempts to divide society and use foreign help or intervention in domestic political struggles," Putin warned, "are not only immoral but are illegal."

"Irresponsible demagogy and attempts to divide society and use foreign help or intervention in domestic political struggles," Putin warned, "are not only immoral but are illegal."

Medvedev, meanwhile, was in Siberia talking about his four-year national development plan. His scheme even came with a snappy title: "The Four I's Plan." They stand for development of legal institutions; infrastructure optimization; support for innovation; and investment growth. For anyone who noticed, Medvedev's plan deviated from the course that Putin set for Russia.

Although it's not entirely clear how or if the two plans are connected, what is certain is that Medvedev, the successor, is no longer in the shadows of his boss.

The separation of Medvedev from Putin has been most acute in Russia's Internet coverage. Television channels certainly report on events related to Putin and his successor, but online reports started defining the two as politicians with completely different views. First off, never before has a speech by Putin slipped from the news headlines in less than a day. This is particularly notable when you consider that the event was his annual news conference. But for journalists, the main story wasn't what the president was saying; it was what his successor was saying.

Will Putin soon be swallowed whole as some political analysts predict? It's certainly a possible scenario. Technically, Putin is a former agent for Russia's internal counterintelligence agency, the Federal Security Bureau (FSB). But, really, is there such a thing as "former" for a spy, particularly one who worked for the successor to the KGB? Can Putin simply move into the background?

The Kremlin from Moscow River.

A view of the Kremlin from the Moscow River.

Before Putin became president, he was never in the public eye. Everyone remembers how difficult it was for Putin to appear comfortable in his public role, where he was accountable to the world. His recent comment in an interview in Time magazine seems to echo this notion: "I am very thankful to the people that they see that indeed over these past eight years [I have been] toiling like a galley slave every day."

I don't rule out the possibility that Putin, the former spy, could slip away quietly with a beautiful legacy as president. I also think there's some truth to what he says. Surely, he is exhausted and looking forward to retreating from the public eye, at least for a little while.

Critics of this theory point to the fact that Putin's final press conference lasted a record four hours and 40 minutes, giving the impression that this is a president who doesn't want to leave the stage. I can only respond by quoting Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin advisor and opposition leader: "Whenever a decision is made, Putin is on top of the world; he speaks at length and with ease."

Who is Mr. Medevedev? We are told he is from an educated family, that he doesn't have a background in counterintelligence. But in Russian politics that's hard to believe. That's really all we know about the main presidential candidate.

If you believe Putin plans to return to his presidential post, any vacation could be dangerous for him. Moreover, no one has been able to provide a decent answer to the question, Who is Mr. Medevedev? We are told he is from an educated family, unlike Putin, who is a workingman's son. We are told that Medvedev doesn't have a background in counterintelligence, but in Russian politics that's hard to believe. Amazingly, that's really all we know about the main presidential candidate.

So far, Medvedev has portrayed himself as a liberal politician, but the rhetoric that he is gentler than his predecessor makes me nervous. It means that the future head of state has something to hide. Lack of information about Medvedev, coupled with his refusal to participate in open debates during the presidential race, have made people wonder if this guy, as they say in Russia, is "an iron hand in a velvet glove."

When I asked a few friends for their thoughts, they told me they weren't interested in politics. A doctor I know said he gets a paycheck and that's what matters. He said that if the new president pays wages, then he'll be fine and the country will be fine. If things start to go wrong, as they did under Yeltsin, it means the Kremlin picked the wrong person.

It reminded me of another joke circulating about the Kremlin:
The year is 2032. Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev are drinking beer together. Putin says to Dmitri, "Dima, I've lost track. Which of us is president and which of us is prime minister?"

Well, right now, Vladimir, you are president and I am prime minister," Medvedev replies.

"In that case," Putin says, "run and get some more beer."

Jokes aside, this could happen. Maybe it will be the other way around, and Medvedev will be calling the shots with Putin outside the inner circle. Who knows? This Mr. Medvedev is quite the man of mystery. But the Russian people don't care as long as there is somebody who'll make the decisions and keep their paychecks coming.

Russian Translation: Lydia Bryans

Reporter, Artyom Khan

Moscow-based correspondent, Artyom Khan.

Artyom Khan was born in the Siberian city of Omsk in 1973. For the past eight years, Khan has lived in Moscow, first working for the radio station Moscow Speaking and later for the Russian News Service. In May 2007, he left the Russian News Service in protest over the editorial policies of the station's new management, which decreed that 50 percent of the station's news must be positive. Since his departure, he has been working for Deutsche Welle. This is the first of several dispatches he will be sending about the election campaign.

Russia: Let the Campaigning Begin, Sort of
In Artyom Khan's first dispatch about the Russian election campaign, he visits his hometown of Omsk in Siberia, where some are asking, "What campaign?"

Russia: Putin's Plan
These dispatches are part of ongoing coverage for our next broadcast, "Russia: Putin's Plan," airing on PBS February 26. Check out our preview page to watch video clips from this story and our lead story, Pakistan: State of Emergency.