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Medvedev shows media-savvy side

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Andrew Marr talks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Only one in eight Russians may believe he is in charge but President Dmitry Medvedev presides over a nuclear arsenal and one of the biggest reserves of natural fuel in the world, and he is increasingly media-savvy as the BBC's Andrew Marr found out.

The crunch of snow underfoot, a brisk cold wind blowing through the birch forests and, at last, a single black official car sweeping up the drive.

President Dmitry Medvedev is reckoned by most Russians polled to be much less important than his mentor Vladimir Putin - the former president and currently prime minister.

But when he arrives, he feels important - the leather-jacketed security men snapping into activity. At this official dacha outside Moscow, the mood is suddenly urgent.

It is a curious situation. I am greeting him at his own official residence, a gothic Germanic castle dating from the 1880s.

Andrew Marr (left) and President Medvedev
Russia says it is working on plans as well for a new European security treaty

Once, the Czar came here.

Now it is in the middle of an area colonised by super-rich Russians - the road junction has a "Luxury Village" sign and adverts on the road here are all for Rolex, Gucci and condos in the US.

But here, Barvikha, is where President Medvedev receives foreign visitors. He has not done extended interviews like this before - we are very privileged.

He bounds out, smiling, and thrusts a buff coloured folder at me. My FSB file?

No - phew! - just the Wikipedia file on another Marr, this one a philologist from the Stalin era, who tried to apply the principles of class struggle to the development of language.

Mostly forgotten now, the Russian Marr was recalled by Mr Medvedev from his schooldays.

He had searched the internet and brought me the results. Was I related?

We walked and talked and I noted that his English is far better than generally thought - though, partly for protocol reasons, he speaks only in Russian when the cameras are on.

Although he has been in the job for a year, a recent opinion poll found only 12% of Russians believe he is in charge.

We knew he hates being asked who runs Russia - and we also knew we would have to work our way round to the question - but there was much else on the agenda besides, especially as the interview would air the weekend before the G20 summit.

Sound advice

The Russian economy has tanked - with six million unemployed and whole towns facing industrial collapse - although Moscow's skyline has changed as rapidly as London's, during the oil-rich years.

Anti-bankers placard at G20 march in London (28/3/2009)
When you borrow money, you should always think how you're going to pay it back
President Medvedev

Judging by his earlier appearances on camera, Mr Medvedev has clearly undergone some pretty intensive media training, and was on a charm offensive.

On the substantial issues, he agreed that the Russian economy had been far too dependent on getting oil and gas out of the ground - and needed to diversify, with more small businesses.

Although he surprised us by declining my invitation to blame Russia's problems on greedy Western bankers, volunteering that Russian companies had thought insufficiently about the consequences, when they took out Western credit.

"When you borrow money, you should always think how you're going to pay it back," he said. Sound advice.

President Medvedev showed a deft - and hitherto unsuspected - gift for lightening his serious points with touches of humour.

Although he will meet US President Barack Obama for the first time in London this week, he said he knew him well because he'd "seen him many times on TV".

And he went on to congratulate the US president on the fact that in their recent exchange of letters, "many of his views coincided with my own".

Political relations between Britain and Moscow were plunged back into the freezer a few years ago, with a string of incidents ranging from bizarre allegations about a "spy rock", to the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko.

Mr Medvedev apparently shares the UK Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson's conviction that they are now "thawing".

The temperature was "spring-like", he insisted - "just like the weather outside" - gesturing to the window beyond which there was a foot of snow on the ground. So perhaps he was being ironic.

'Smart player'

And so we arrived at the Putin question: Was Mr Medvedev in charge of him, or vice-versa?

President Medvedev patiently explained the constitutional division of powers.

President Medvedev (right) speaking to Vladimir Putin
"We're both good cops," President Medvedev insisted

So was it true, as Mr Putin reportedly told President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, that he and Medvedev were bad cop and good cop respectively?

"No, no - we're both good cops," the current president insisted - laughing perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

So how did he intend to compete in the personality stakes with his predecessor - notorious in the West for his judo and topless hunting expeditions?

Well, said Mr Medvedev gamely, "I'm ready to do a photo shoot if that helps".

As we wound up, to everyone's surprise, he gave us a few words in English.

No doubt carefully rehearsed - and it didn't come out quite right - but the spirit seemed genuine: "I wish you and Britain and everybody success, in these difficult times."

Not a bad thought to end with.

Who is Dmitry Medvedev really? No single interview can answer that question.

But for what it is worth, he seemed to me a man on a journey, and rather more interesting than the Putin front man people describe.

He is smart and he is well aware that he is a player in a world dominated by media-savvy rivals, not least the man he is clearly fascinated by, that Mr Obama.



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