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Medvedev still in Putin's shadow

Juri Maloverjan
BBC Russian Service, Moscow

Dmitry Medvedev
Dmitry Medvedev has presented some of his own initiatives

Exactly a year ago Dmitry Medvedev was elected as Russia's president, the third since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Political commentators were voicing wildly varying theories about the future of the country's new leader.

Some said he might be in office for 18 months or so and then step down, giving Vladimir Putin, who is now prime minister, a path back to the presidency without breaking the country's constitution. Others predicted that the "magic" of being president might make Mr Medvedev emerge from under Mr Putin's wing.

Liberal hopes

Stepping into the role of president last year, Mr Medvedev said that his most important task was the "further development of civil and economic freedoms".

Pretty much standard rhetoric for a president you might think, but for many liberal Russians there was a glimmer of hope that with time the young lawyer, who had never served in the Russian army, would bring in his own brand of politics, and sail a more liberal course than his predecessor.

One year on and some are saying that if you try, you can see signs of independence in Mr Medvedev's behaviour - but only signs and only if you try.

People on the streets of Moscow give their views on President Medvedev's first year in office.

The past year has seen its fair share of changes for Russia - but not in the outward relationship between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.

Natalya Timakova is the president's press secretary. She always gives the same answer to any inquiries from the BBC about how her boss differs from the PM. That answer is, by the way, the same one Vladimir Putin first coined:

"The professional relationship between the president and prime minister is structured exactly as it should be. Their powers and their responsibilities are all clearly defined - and it is within these parameters that they work."

The chief editor of Russian Newsweek, Mikhail Fishman, put it like this: "As far as any questions that have a significant impact on domestic and foreign affairs, President Medvedev won't take a single step without considering what Putin has to say."

War with Georgia

The most notable decision that Dmitry Medvedev nominally had to take in his first year was to go to war with Georgia. But a big question mark still hangs over the extent of his involvement in the decision-making process.

During the conflict Russians could see plenty of television pictures of Vladimir Putin - not Dmitry Medvedev - flying into Vladikavkaz, just north of the border with South Ossetia, issuing commands.

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Who rules Russia? Medvedev or Putin

In his first year as president, Mr Medvedev has stepped forward with a few sizeable initiatives, but just how much they are his own and what they really mean is again unclear.

He began by talking about tackling corruption and bias in court proceedings. But that is how all Russian leaders start - and Vladimir Putin was no exception. There has been little to show for it.

It was Dmitry Medvedev who advanced the idea of extending the presidential and parliamentary terms to six and five years respectively: amendments to the constitution were made swiftly and with meticulous execution.

But the majority of political commentators suggest that the changes to the constitution were made not for Dmitry Medvedev, but rather for Vladimir Putin, to allow his return to the presidency for a further 12 years.

In terms of foreign politics President Medvedev stepped forward with a wide-reaching, but extremely obscure initiative, the "Helsinki Act" - a new universal agreement for security within Europe.

And while European leaders answered politely that it was a "very interesting proposition", Washington said loudly that there was absolutely no need for any plans to replace Nato or any similar European organisations with anything new.

Signs of independence

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin agrees that it is too early to talk about President Medvedev parting with his predecessor's politics, but he believes some signs of independence are emerging. He says that a year ago it was unimaginable to think of the presidential successor criticising Vladimir Putin, who had guided him all the way to the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin
Putin was seen as making policy towards Georgia before the war

"Even in December [President Medvedev] said that Parliament was not working hard enough, that it was only undertaking 30% of the measures set down to tackle the financial crisis. He didn't name Vladimir Putin personally, of course, but still…" explained Mr Oreshkin.

The second point, according to Mr Oreshkin, however small it might appear, is the disagreement over how state-owned corporations should be run.

"Medvedev is of the opinion that independent directors should run state-owned corporations, but Putin leans towards appointing government officials."

But Mr Oreshkin points out that giant state-run corporations in many key areas [such as gas and oil] are the fruits of Putin's labours, and that no one would even think of changing that.

Another point that might signal the new president's independence, according to Dmitry Oreshkin, are a number of appointments and dismissals concerning regional governors.

Popular view

However, Newsweek's Mikhail Fishman believes that it is extremely difficult for observers outside Russia to judge who is calling the shots over these decisions.

And few Russians seem to think that Mr Medvedev is in charge.

According to the results of a survey conducted in February by the non-government Levada Center, just 12% of those who took part believed that.

Some 34% believed Putin remained the main political figure in the country. Exactly half of those surveyed thought that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin shared power equally.

Translated by Ben Tavener, BBC Russian Service

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