What lies ahead for Russia, now on the eve of its transfer of power from one president to another? News Bureau writer Andrea Lynn interviewed Richard Tempest, director of Illinois' Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, about Russia's future.
What kind of transition do you expect when Dmitry Medvedev becomes president of Russia? Are there any major differences that that have been detected between his style of leadership and that of Vladimir Putin?
Medvedev was elected to the presidency on March 2 and will be formally inaugurated on May 7, so the transition period is almost over. So far things are going smoothly, with the current president and the president-elect repeatedly stating that they have worked, and are planning to work, in tandem. No policy differences have been detected between Putin and Medvedev, although in some recent speeches, the latter has emphasized the importance of democracy and the rule of law, suggesting that neither is yet fully established in Russia.
The Russian constitution gives the presidency enormous power - it is modeled on the Gaullist constitution of the French Fifth Republic - with the head of state being, in essence, an elected monarch. By contrast, the premiership is an executive position and under both Yeltsin and Putin, prime ministers have been managers and extensions of the president's will, rather than independent political actors. So there is an in-built institutional tension there.
The association between Putin and Medvedev goes back to St. Petersburg, where in the early 1990s Putin was in charge of the mayor's office and Medvedev, a lawyer by profession, was employed there as an expert in international law. Massive redecorating and redesigning work is taking place in the White House, the seat of the Russian government, where Putin will have his office as prime minister. A state-of-the-art gym is being built there for Putin's use - he is an avid skier and has a black belt in judo, as well. However, in a symbolically important comment, Putin recently stated that as premier, he will not display Medvedev's portrait on his office wall.
Medvedev is Putin's handpicked successor, but could he also become a loose cannon, or even an archenemy? If the two of them veer off from one another, what effect might that have on the country?
Power does strange and wonderful and sinister things to the people who wield it, so both scenarios are possible. Still, Medvedev's track record as Putin's associate in city government in St. Petersburg, chairman of the energy giant Gazprom and deputy prime minister gives no indications that he is a secretly ambitious and scheming individual or nurses some hidden grudge against Putin. On the other hand, Gorbachev kept a very low profile during his years as Politburo member in the early 1980s and gave few indications that he would morph into the gravedigger of communism that he became. And certainly, Medvedev, a soft-spoken lawyer who is barely 5 feet 4 inches tall, does not have Putin's athletic aura of command. In fact, he is currently being coached by Putin's image makers to walk and talk like his predecessor! On the night of Medvedev's election victory the two presidents appeared together at a rally in Red Square. Putin looked masculine and tough in a black parka, while Medvedev, who wore a leather jacket with an upturned collar, was obviously trying to project the same aura of street cred, but didn't quite succeed. Remember, as a martial arts expert, Putin is one of those few world leaders who can kill an opponent with his bare hands - or feet. Medvedev cannot aspire to the same degree of muscular political toughness. True, Medvedev's favorite rock groups are Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, which suggests that somewhere inside him there dwells a wild, nonconformist streak.
How is Russia's health, so to speak? Is the country better off now than it was four or even eight years ago?
Russia is massively better off today than four or eight years ago. Putin and Medvedev are genuinely popular. The latter would have easily won a fair and free election, not with the 70 percent he was given credit for officially, but certainly with more than 50 percent. In terms of the economy, which has benefited from sky-high oil prices, Putin's government has been a remarkably competent one - this is something that is not often recognized by foreign commentators - and Medvedev must take some of the credit. The mass of Russians - pensioners and the very poor excluded - enjoy a higher standard of living than at any time in the last century.