JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, Margaret Warner begins a week of reports from Russia, where President Obama holds a summit meeting next week. Tonight, who’s really running Russia?
MARGARET WARNER: It’s summertime in Moscow, and Sparrow Hills, overlooking the city, is alive with souvenir shoppers and brides.
Musician Andrei Koldin offers a big welcome.
ANDREI KOLDIN (singing): America, America, America, America…
(through translator): And now the Russian anthem.
The two anthems are much alike, because our country and your country are two big powers, and we have to be friends.
MARGARET WARNER: But when asked about President Obama’s upcoming visit, the accordion player struck a discordant political note.
ANDREI KOLDIN (through translator): America does not want Russia to get off its knees, to stand up on its own feet, to be a strong power. Every Russian will tell you that.
The Medvedev-Putin relationship
MARGARET WARNER: That mixed sentiment about the United States isn't the only two-headed puzzle President Obama will face in Moscow next week. He also has to determine if the man he's having his official summit with -- President Dmitry Medvedev -- is the man with the power to make a deal.
If you want to know what's at the core of President Medvedev, many Russians say you need only open up one of these Medvedev nesting dolls and see who's inside, his predecessor and mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Fourteen months ago, at the end of his term, Putin vacated the Kremlin for Medvedev, but secretary Anna Atvinovskaya has no doubt who's running Russia today.
ANNA ATVINOVSKAYA (through translator): Putin. He has been ruling the country, and he will be ruling it. Medvedev is just a figurehead.
MARGARET WARNER: Russians credit Putin with bringing the country back from the political and economic chaos of the 1990s, but the U.S.-Russia relationship turned acrimonious under Putin. Now the Obama administration hopes the new man in the Kremlin will offer a fresh start.
Medvedev does project a looser image than Putin. He's a lawyer, not a former KGB agent. He's a fan of rock music and hosts a video blog inviting ordinary Russians to tell him their concerns.
But the nature of the Medvedev-Putin balance of power, which many Russians call a tandem, remains a mystery.
DMITRI PESKOV, Spokesman, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: The answer is very simple.
MARGARET WARNER: Long-time Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov insists Medvedev has his own sphere.
DMITRI PESKOV: President Medvedev is the head of state. And he's the one who determines the background of the politics of this country. He determines the foreign policy of the country.
MARGARET WARNER: Hogwash, says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former opposition member of parliament. Medvedev is basically a face man for foreign consumption.
VLADIMIR RYZHKOV, Opposition Politician: No doubt we have one real leader, Vladimir Putin, and his political ego or his political alter ego or his political shadow, Dmitry Medvedev, he's closest partner of Vladimir Putin. And his mind is absolutely same way.
Waiting for real changes
MARGARET WARNER: The real test of Medvedev's influence, Ryzhkov says, is whether anything has changed. Those at the receiving end of the government's anti-democratic steps aren't so sure.
It's Saturday morning at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, known for its critical coverage of the Kremlin. Editor Dmitri Muratov and his staff are planning a story about how the government is handling the economic crisis.
But several of his most accomplished staffers, like investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, will never attend such meetings again. In the past decade, four of them were brutally murdered.
So Medvedev surprised many in April when he gave his first presidential interview to Muratov's paper.
DMITRI MURATOV, Editor, Novaya Gazeta (through translator): By doing this interview, Medvedev signaled to our audience, the Russian intellectual elite that reads us, that he will hear the position of the minority.
MARGARET WARNER: But most Russians don't get their news from high-brow papers like Novaya Gazeta. Eighty percent of them rely entirely on television news. And under Putin, three of the four national networks were taken over by the Kremlin or its friends.
No matter, says Peskov.
DMITRI PESKOV: We have 35,000 newspapers and magazines published here. Just imagine a state or a special service that would dare to keep that amount of press under control. It's physically impossible.
MARGARET WARNER: Muratov was encouraged when Medvedev promised to look into the languishing journalist murder investigations and keep him posted. And he does see a promising difference between Putin's and Medvedev's instincts.
DMITRI MURATOV (through translator): One cares about effectiveness and doesn't care about the means used to achieve that, and the other one is more of a lawyer. Medvedev said the state should make courts independent, and I agree. Now we will be watching to see what happens in practice.
Journalists still targeted
MARGARET WARNER: Glasnost Defense Foundation head Aleksei Simonov says democratic freedoms are as restricted under Medvedev as under Putin.
ALEKSEI SIMONOV, President, Glasnost Defense Foundation: For me, nothing changed during this year. For freedom of speech, nothing changed during this year.
MARGARET WARNER: Citizen activists who take on the powerful, like human rights leader Lev Ponomaryov, are also in danger.
LEV PONOMARYOV, Director, For Human Rights (through translator): Someone hit me on the head. I fell, and they kept kicking me.
MARGARET WARNER: Ponomaryov, who was attacked last April, thinks he was a target because his group defends citizens against government abuse.
LEV PONOMARYOV (through translator): You can definitely say that the amount of attacks on journalists, on civil activists, including human rights activists, has increased. It means that this is the core of Medvedev regime in reality, whatever he or others say.
MARGARET WARNER: Peskov doesn't defend attacks against journalists or activists, but he doesn't apologize for the government's strong hand, either. Just remember what the country was like, he said, when Putin took over in 2000.
DMITRI PESKOV: Russia was a country where workers were not receiving their salaries. Russia was a country where pensions were not paid. Russia was a country where the republic on the south of its geography being infected by a bacteria of separatism, and we managed to repair that.
And I have no doubt that we'll complete this process of modernization of the country, making it modern, effective, prosperous, democratic.
MARGARET WARNER: But Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center isn't holding her breath for Medvedev or Putin to introduce more political freedoms.
MASHA LIPMAN, Carnegie Moscow Center: I think the top priority for both men and for all the Russian political elite is to keep things politically stable. And I don't think any ideas about vision, about different policy may pre-empt the desire to keep things stable.
MARGARET WARNER: Democracy advocates in Russia and the U.S. are urging President Obama to raise human rights when he comes to Moscow next week. But with such a long list of issues on which he wants the Russians to cooperate, from arms control to Iran, do he and the United States really have a strategic interest in the state of freedom in Russia?
Last year, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, military vehicles once again paraded through Red Square. Opponents like Vladimir Ryzhkov say Russia's Putin-era aggressiveness abroad won't be checked as long as Putin maintains his tight grip at home.
VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: Putin created new identity that its restoration of superpower, restoration of super-state, restoration of super influence inside Russia and outside Russia. And for to demonstrate that, he needs more aggressive foreign policy.
MARGARET WARNER: So is Medvedev more ready than Putin to cooperate with the U.S.? And if so, can he make the deal? We asked Dmitri Peskov.
Is he free to make whatever decision he wants without major input and agreement, if not direction, from Prime Minister Putin?
DMITRI PESKOV: I don't think I have to answer it, actually, because, I mean, it's nonsense.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm just trying to drive at or get you to explain -- and you have already in a domestic context -- but in a foreign policy context how much authority President Medvedev has, how much independent authority.
DMITRI PESKOV: Total.
MARGARET WARNER: That's not the prevailing view here.
MASHA LIPMAN: If there is a difference, this will not be President Medvedev taking a different stance on Iran compared to former President Vladimir Putin. I think, if there is change, this would mean that Vladimir Putin changed his mind.
MARGARET WARNER: Ordinary Russians may never know who makes the decisions at the summit, but it appears that, whatever the Medvedev-Putin tandem decides, is just fine with them.
JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow, Margaret looks at how Russia is faring in the global economic recession. And on our Web site, she'll answer your questions about her reporting in an insider forum.