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Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 00:46 UK

Insight: Russia's leading men

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow (09 September 2009)

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

It may be a while until the next Russian presidential election, but when Vladimir Putin announced he was not ruling out returning to power as president in 2012, it caused ripples through political Moscow.

It was this comment from his long meeting with the Valdai club of foreign experts last week which prompted the most debate in Russian newspapers, and in private conversations with Russian colleagues.

And no wonder. In a country where one man at the top can decide so much, any whiff of the political future is of huge significance.

But it is not just Mr Putin's game plan that matters. After all, it is his erstwhile protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently president. He would be consulted, said Mr Putin graciously.

So what does Mr Medvedev think?

In a parallel meeting with the president - like last year, across from the Kremlin in the slightly incongruous setting of the banqueting hall of the GUM department store - the top issue that needed clarifying seemed to be this: just how closely aligned are these two leaders in their plans for Russia and ambitions for themselves?

I never worked in the committee of State Security, for 10 years I worked as a businessman. So I know what I am talking about
Dmitry Medvedev

President Medvedev was expecting the question about 2012 and grinned broadly.

"I do have a plan," he said. "But I'm not making any predictions".

"I didn't want to run for president last time, but that was my fate. I don't make any forecasts."

But he pointedly did not endorse Mr Putin's view that they would work it out between them.

In fact, what was most interesting about the Valdai group's encounter with President Medvedev this year was the way he seemed to try to distance himself from his benefactor, as if to assert his right to hold an independent view.

It is true that in some sensitive policy areas, his responses were just as sharp as Mr Putin's.

He did not regret one bit his scathing letter accusing President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine of stoking tensions with Russia. He could see no chance of Moscow improving relations with Georgia while President Mikheil Saakashvili was still there.

And, as for the direct elections of Russian governors in Russia - abolished in the wake of the Beslan crisis five years ago - he could see no prospect of restoring those in 100 years.

'Personal views'

But Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin do not see eye to eye on everything, it seems.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama in Moscow (06 July 2009)
Mr Medvedev praised Mr Obama for not relying on his aides

They had disagreed over whether Russia should join the World Trade Organization, Mr Medvedev told us, though they were now united in blaming a reluctant United States for keeping Russia out.

He welcomed new talks with Iran but deliberately left open the possibility of fresh sanctions - whereas, only days before, Mr Putin had told us sanctions were unworkable and any threat to use force against Iran "unacceptable".

He enthused over his eight hours of talks and lunch with Barack Obama in Moscow in July - Mr Putin was only invited to breakfast - and pointedly praised the US president for speaking up for himself.

"President Obama tries to be independent in his position, instead of relying on his aides," said Dmitry Medvedev, "which is exactly what I try to do."

And he slipped in a nod to Mr Putin's KGB past, apparently to burnish his own credentials for fighting corruption.

"I never worked in the committee of State Security. For 10 years I worked as a businessman, so I know what I am talking about," said Mr Medvedev.

"Corrupt officials run Russia. They have the true power in Russia… We should squeeze it out."

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi (14 August 2009)
Mr Medvedev is possibly no match as yet for Mr Putin

Corruption was one theme in a bleak and far-reaching vision to modernise Russia which he kept returning to.

He had laid it out in a long internet article last week, which openly spoke of influential opponents who would try to put obstacles in his way. The assessment, he said, had been his and his alone.

"Did you notice how often I used the pronoun 'I' and 'me' in the article?" he asked. "It is very clear these were my personal views."

So did the ambitious vision he had set himself mean that he hoped to remain Russian president for at least one more term, whatever Mr Putin said?, I asked him.

Again, the president grinned and shifted in his seat, and then dodged the question. There was no "collision" looming between himself and Mr Putin, he told us.

"We have quite a friendly relationship," he said.

"We talk over issues, though not as often as some people think - once a week perhaps. He makes his statements, I make mine."

Genial leader

Their views on where Russia was heading were not in contradiction, Mr Medvedev said.

Maybe we have our differences, but that's what matters - the mindset. We speak the same language.
Dmitry Medvedev

As prime minister, Vladimir Putin defended positive indicators in the state of the economy at the moment, whereas he warned of the dire problems Russia could face in the long term if it did not adjust its strategy.

"Perhaps we should both take a blood test to check whether we are of 'one blood'," he joked, referring to Mr Putin's characterisation of their partnership, which he agreed was close and strong.

"Don't forget Putin doesn't just have a KGB past. The two of us were educated at the same law department of the same university. We have the same mindsets.

"Maybe we have our differences, but that's what matters - the mindset. We speak the same language."

Does that sound like the beginnings of a split? A protege beginning to spread his wings? Hardly.

Maybe Dmitry Medvedev is sincere in wanting to make an impact. Maybe he can convince Russians that his criticism of Russia and desire to change it is more than fine words.

He says he wrote his article to seek out public opinion ahead of the annual address he will give to the Russian Duma in November.

His own economic adviser, Arkady Dvorkovich, was adamant when he spoke to us that the president and his team had no more than two and a half years - until the next election - to show they meant business by enacting the first steps of a viable plan of reform.

But at the same time, Mr Medvedev told us that any change in Russia must come slowly or it would be resisted.

There may be hardliners in the Russian government, he says, but that is a good thing because all points of view must be taken into account.

It does not really sound like a recipe to galvanize the support of the young internet-savvy Russians whom he hopes will lead his modernisation plans.

He is an accommodating president, not a revolutionary - genial, even likeable, but so far still no match for the steely Mr Putin, one suspects.

He is the junior partner in a dance where his mentor calls the tune.

You can listen to the BBC World Service's The Forum with Bridget Kendall here .

Read more of Bridget Kendall's Global Insight columns:



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