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Chattier Medvedev Could Be Testing Path To 'Real Power'

  • Chloe Arnold

President Medvedev's television appearance was taped in Moscow on February 12 and aired on Russian TV three days later.

President Medvedev's television appearance was taped in Moscow on February 12 and aired on Russian TV three days later.

MOSCOW -- Sitting back in a comfortable leather armchair, a cup of tea perched on the table in front of him, Dmitry Medvedev reassures the nation that it has little to fear from the current economic crisis.

The television show, filmed in a room lined with expensive-looking artwork and leatherbound books, gives the impression that Medvedev is speaking from his own sitting room. It has echoes of the "fireside chats" used so effectively by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of the Great Depression.

"We have accumulated substantial reserves over the past five to seven years exactly in order to be able to use them in case the financial and economic situation got worse," Medvedev intones. "We are making changes to our budget. Yes, it is a difficult budget, it [has a] deficit. However, with the help of the Reserve Fund, we will be able to cover all our expenses, including social expenses, for this year and for the next year, and overcome the most difficult part of the financial crisis."

That February 15 television appearance was just the latest attempt to boost Medvedev's public profile, giving rise to speculation that he is emerging from the shadow of his patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and coming into his own as president. In addition to the "fireside chat," handlers have posted videos to Medvedev's official blog of the president discussing anything from student loans to affordable sports facilities. There is room for readers to post their comments, and he has promised to reply to any issues raised on the website.

Analysts say Medvedev's variation on the Roosevelt theme is potentially a good development for his country.

"I think his idea to be visible and try to explain the situation to people -- that's basically a good move," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs." "It's much better than before, when the administration actually tried to limit itself to propaganda, without any attempts to explain. So in the long run, I think it might be positive."

Time Of Disenchantment

Medvedev's paternal, almost professorial, approach is in sharp contrast to that of Putin, who has long relied on a brusque, aggressive tone in his dealings with the public. While Putin's approach might have worked well when Russia was riding high, some observers suggest a softer touch is needed as the country heads into a period of economic uncertainty.

It also comes at a time of growing disillusionment with the government.

"Medvedev is very concerned about the situation in Russia, and I believe the main goal of the government is to avoid any kind of panic among the population, to maintain a certain kind of political stability," says Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

"They are trying to be more appealing to the people, to make more public-relations campaigns in order to calm people and to improve the image of the authorities."

Putin (left) and Medvedev attended a concert on Red Square after polls closed in the March 2008 presidential election.
It is almost a year since Medvedev sailed to victory in a tightly managed presidential election in March 2008, an election that was criticized in the West as undemocratic. Medvedev, a former protege of Putin, came in with the full support of the outgoing president.

Medvedev has often been described as a caretaker president, holding the reins until 2012, when the constitution allows Putin to run for the top job once again. In the meantime, it is thought that Putin continues to run the country in his role as prime minister, leading some commentators to dub the current regime a "tandemocracy" or a "two-headed eagle."

But there are signs that Medvedev is attempting to emerge from Putin's shadow. Following nationwide protests against the deepening economic crisis, Medvedev expressed dissatisfaction at how slowly the government was responding. He told a group of business leaders that anticrisis measures had been implemented "unjustifiably slowly."

Last month, he demanded that a draft law on treason submitted by Putin's cabinet be withdrawn and reworked. The bill was criticized by human rights groups, who said it would have allowed law-enforcement agencies to charge government critics as traitors, and anyone working for a foreign organization as a spy.

Strains At The Top?

But do the rumblings of dissent signal a genuine split within the "tandemocracy"?

"It's known that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev don't always see eye to eye. But for the time being they have managed to find a way to agree on their differences," says Aleksei Mukhin, the director of the independent Center for Political Information. "Putin was very clever in choosing Medvedev as his successor. He studied all his psychological traits. And so Medvedev in all certainty will not come into open conflict with Putin during his tenure as president, as long as there is no force majeure."

At the same time, however, the deepening of the financial crisis could make it harder to maintain a balance between the two leaders' styles.

With tens of thousands of jobs on the line and a mounting risk of unrest, analysts say there is a chance that power will shift away from the former patron.

"It's my personal feeling that Putin is very tired, and he's really not in a very good mood because of everything that's happening," Lukyanov says. "He wasn't prepared for such a sharp shift in trends. I wouldn't rule out that the power balance in Russia may shift this year. Maybe Medvedev will gradually grab more real power."

Ordinary Russians appear divided on Medvedev's more prominent role. After the weekend television address, some of those interviewed by RFE/RL said they still felt no reason to believe what he says, while others said his relatively relaxed approach made him seem more accessible.

Raisa Melekhova, an engineer at the Institute for Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, was one of a handful of people picked to speak to Putin during his annual question-and-answer session on national television in 2007. Reached after Medvedev's Sunday premiere on February 15, she said she thought the new television address was a step in the right direction:

"He seems very open to discussion, and wherever he is, he goes out of his way to speak to people," Melekhova says. "For now, it's a little early to say, but I think [politicians] should play a greater role in people's lives."

Medvedev is expected to hold his television shows every three or four weeks, according to a spokeswoman.

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