Moscow: After a year in office, President Dmitry Medvedev is showing a different Kremlin style to that of predecessor Vladimir Putin, though analysts can only guess if this might herald major change or not.
Medvedev was installed in the Kremlin on May 7 last year after being picked by Putin as his preferred successor, a choice endorsed in a subsequent election. Putin became prime minister and the two men said they would rule Russia together as a “tandem”.
Since then, the state of the two men’s relationship has been the subject of intense speculation.
“They are good partners, who share views on Russia’s future but there is a big difference in their background, manner and views on how to manage things,” one official said, reacting to repeated reports of an imminent split between the two.
The visual difference between the 43-year-old ex-lawyer and the steely-eyed 56-year-old former KGB spy is striking.
In his 2000-2008 presidency, marked by Russia’s resurgence on the world stage on the back of an economic boom, Putin turned the Kremlin into the centre of Russian life.
No major question could be decided without the president. In his public appearances, Putin loved demonstrating a grasp of the details of citizens’ lives and showed a personal touch through gestures such as sending a Christmas tree to a little girl or ordering a road to be built in a remote village.
“The president is responsible for everything in Russia,” Putin said in one of his early speeches, chiming with traditional views of how the Kremlin ruler should behave.
A man of the system
Medvedev started out from a different point. “A system where everything is decided in the Kremlin is not ideal,” he once told governors, in a clear contrast to Putin’s imperial style.
Medvedev, who now has to handle Russia’s worst economic crisis in a decade, shows far less inclination to impose his own will on key ministers and is less driven by emotion than Putin.
Putin’s colourful street language, which won him popularity among ordinary Russians, has given way to Medvedev’s lawyerly style, full of references to legal norms.
Things unimaginable in Putin’s Russia have started happening: Medvedev’s ministers venture to clash over issues on which national leaders have already expressed an opinion. Surprisingly, no one has been fired yet.
“Putin is in a way a true Russian tsar, who believes that without his intervention the world will not go round,” an analyst close to the Kremlin said. “Medvedev is more of a manager, who bets on a system rather than a personal will.”
As opposed to Putin, who has often been driven by emotion when fighting Chechen separatists or politically ambitious oligarchs, Medvedev looks far more pragmatic in his decisions.
While Putin swung between embracing U.S. President George W. Bush and denouncing Washington for seeking “world domination”, Medvedev looked reserved when meeting the new US leader Barack Obama last month, with whom he plans to “press a reset button” on rocky ties.
The first year of Medvedev’s rule has also seen a sharp decline in nationalist rhetoric coming from the Kremlin.
The hardline pro-Kremlin youth movements, which scared Russian liberals with their displays of aggressive patriotism under Putin, have all but disappeared.
Medvedev has urged a bigger role for non-governmental organisations, entities which his predecessor accused of being in the pocket of Western governments.
“Medvedev is a post-Soviet man, who does not have Putin’s personal memories of the humiliation suffered by the nation after the collapse of the Communist empire,” the analyst said.
Searching for new allies
Putin felt at home speaking to the military top brass and loved flying on jet fighters and sailing aboard nuclear submarines. Medvedev feels more at home in front of his laptop.
“Freedom is better than non-freedom,” he said in a pre-election speech, raising a topic which had become a taboo during Putin’s years.
Does the difference in style presage Russia’s departure from Putin’s course, blamed by opponents for crushing democracy, or is it rather part of Medvedev’s game to change the balance of forces in the ruling tandem? Views differ.
“Medvedev desperately needs his own power base and he now has to win supporters in every corner,” said Alexei Mukhin of the Centre for Political Information.
Others think the style has been worked out with Putin.
“The very choice of Medvedev as president showed that Putin was ready for a certain correction of the political style,” Boris Makarenko of Medvedev’s think-tank INSOR said. “What is happening is a mild liberalisation.”