Dmitri Medvedev’s full house in January

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I don’t know whether politicians and journalists indulged in the traditional January fortune-telling games this year, but by the end of the month it had become clear whom they see as President Putin’s most likely successor.

On January 24, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev addressed the Duma – and it was a full-house audience. “Almost all Duma members turned up to hear Vladimir Putin’s potential successor deliver a progress report on the national projects,” says RBC Daily. “Even Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov mentioned the high turnout level.” According to Gazeta.ru, Gryzlov “did the arithmetic to show that this event was attended by almost as many lawmakers as President Putin’s speech at the first meeting of the fourth-convocation Duma.”

RBC Daily describes the pattern of Medvedev’s speech as predictable. It was the same pattern used by President Putin in recent interviews with Durdarshan Television (India) and the RTI news agency. Putin expressed the wish that the next head of state would continue the policies pursued by the Russian authorities in recent years. After that, all Medvedev had to do was report on the national projects in a complimentary manner – although on earlier occasions, Medvedev had permitted himself to criticize practically all the specific ministries involved in the national projects.

Gazeta.ru notes that Medvedev became the national projects curator on September 5, 2005, while he was still head of the presidential administration. Two months later, on November 14, 2005, he was appointed as first deputy prime minister. The national projects turned out to be a winner: according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), Medvedev’s popularity rating rose from 2% to 18% in the course of 2006.

On January 27, another speech by Medvedev became the highlight of the Modern Russia panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. As the Vedomosti newspaper puts it, “many of the foreigners at Davos made no secret of being interested in Medvedev as a potential president of Russia.”

The Corriere della Sera newspaper (article translated at InoSMI.ru) says that “at this stage, Medvedev is being called the favorite in the presidential race.” Neue Zuricher Zeitung notes that “many observers consider Medvedev the crown prince at Putin’s court.” According to the The Wall Street Journal (article translated at Inopressa.ru), “Kremlin-watchers are saying that Putin is favoring Medvedev.”

A source from the Russian government delegation at Davos told Vedomosti that the decision to send Medvedev to the forum was made in December; President Putin himself insisted on it.

Vedomosti observes that the events where Medvedev was speaking were well-attended by members of the Russian delegation, but they were rarely seen at other events on the general conference program.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper notes that Medvedev predictably avoided any direct discussion about the possibility of becoming president, stating only that he doesn’t indulge in abstract speculation about his political future, since this would distract him from his basic duties. However, he was most willing to talk about his vision of Russia’s political future. To the delight (or perhaps the disappointment) of his audience, he let it be understood that Russia will maintain continuity in its policy course after President Putin leaves office.

Vremya Novostei quotes Medvedev as saying: “The world today is so closely interconnected that it’s extremely difficult to expect any drastic policy shifts from any states, even during changeovers in their political elites. At any rate, that’s what I see as the difference between democracies and non-democracies: when different forces or different parties come to power in democracies, policy continuity is preserved.”

According to the Kommersant newspaper, “Russia’s usual policy balances between the ideology of state capitalism and state regulation – but the Medvedev program sounded much more like the political declarations made by Vladimir Putin as a newly-elected president circa 1999-2000,” and “a substantial part of the audience regarded Medvedev’s 40-minute speech as a ‘declaration.’ In other words, they didn’t really believe it – even though Medvedev occasionally switched to English rather than Russian.”

In response to a question about what the new Russia means and where it is heading, Medvedev said: “We are building new institutions founded on the basic principles of full-fledged democracy. Democracy without any unnecessary additional definitions. Effective democracy, relying on market economy principles, the rule of law, and the government’s accountability to the rest of society.” (Quoted at Newsru.com.)

Vedomosti has another quote from the same speech: “I believe that what we have in Russia is real democracy – and so does the person who talks of sovereign democracy. Terminology games of this kind don’t add anything.” Medvedev was referring to Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration – the person who coined the term “sovereign democracy.”

These quotes might seem to suggest that Medvedev and Surkov are opponents. However, these politicians made a point of denying any differences when they both addressed a pro-Kremlin youth meeting at the Effective Policy Foundation on January 31.

The Interfax news agency quotes Medvedev as saying: “Vladislav Surkov and I have been discussing this topic for about three years, and it’s had nothing to do with any speeches or Davos. (It is) a friendly conversation about how to describe various political phenomena. I like classic definitions of the word ‘democracy.’ But Surkov and I don’t have any fundamental disagreements.”

“Our views are mostly the same, except for terminology,” said Surkov, offering a simple example of their agreement: “We both like Deep Purple, although his favorite song is Kentucky Woman and mine is Lazy.”

According to Vedomosti, some Western journalists and analysts at the Davos forum noted that Medvedev’s style and manner of speaking bear an increasing resemblance to Vladimir Putin’s. “Medvedev is looking like a real politician, said Anatoly Kaletsky, editor of The Times – but more of a technocrat than a charismatic politician; Medvedev gives the impression of a well-educated European, but he might be slightly too young.”

Corriere della Sera (in an article translated at InoSMI.ru) describes Medvedev as follows: “A slight build, but the confident face of a person who has his feet firmly on the ground – and he gives the impression that he believes what he’s saying. What’s more, he has a quality rarely found in Moscow’s rulers – he isn’t arrogant. He’s calming people down, assuring them that they have nothing to worry about when they look in Moscow’s direction.”

Medvedev’s “childlike expression” is noted by The Wall Street Journal (in an article translated at Inopressa.ru): “According to Medvedev’s opponents, the 44-year-old politician lacks political experience and presence: at five foot five, he’s one of the few Russian officials who are shorter than Putin… Others say that his mild-mannered nature could turn out to be an advantage, since it would make it easier for Putin to control him after Putin leaves office.”

Corriere della Sera concludes: “If Putin wanted to send a conciliatory and sober message to the international elite gathered at Davos, he sent the right messenger: a representative of the Kremlin’s internal reformist faction – opposed by the ‘siloviki,’ the people with KGB or military backgrounds. Medvedev, in his Italian suit, appeared as evidence for Russia’s assertion that it will integrate itself peacefully into the global economy and international politics.”

Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, maintains that Operation Successor is Russia’s internal affair – so he is skeptical about these demonstrative speeches delivered abroad. Nikonov told the Gazeta newspaper: “If Medvedev is regarded as the successor, that means he’s on display. If he’s not regarded as the successor, he’s only the head of the Russian delegation at the World Economic Forum – a duty previously performed by Herman Gref, Alexei Kudrin, and Alexander Zhukov. Having Medvedev on display at Davos doesn’t mean that a decision has been made. And I don’t think that such displays actually decide anything, since the West is not a player in Russia’s elections.”

Meanwhile, Medvedev is continuing to gain ground in Russia itself.

Vedomosti reports that on January 30, Medvedev became the chairman of the board of trustees at the Russian Association of Lawyers (RAL), strengthening his influence there.

A meeting of the RAL presidium, chaired by Medvedev, drew a full house. According to Kommersant, all the siloviki and prominent lawyers were there – except FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev. The hall was so crowded that there were conflicts over seating.

Lenta.ru notes that state officials have started taking an interest in the RAL entirely due to the presence of Medevedev, one of Putin’s most likely potential successors.

Vedomosti reports that RAL funding will be controlled by Oleg Kutafin, who formerly headed the initiative groups that nominated Putin in two presidential elections. RAL activities will be covered by Pravo (Law), a new 24-hour television channel announced by Medvedev. The project will be managed by Anton Zlatopolsky, chief executive of the Rossiya network (Channel Two) and chairman of the RAL media cooperation commission.

The RAL meeting focused on the issue of free legal aid. Medvedev praised the work already done by the RAL on establishing a network of 24,000 free legal advice centers. According to Kommersant, these could become a support network for Medvedev’s prospective presidential campaign. There wouldn’t be a problem with expanding the network; Central Electoral Commission Chairman Anatoly Veshnyakov has proposed that the RAL could use the capacities of existing election commissions in the regions.

According to Gazeta, Medvedev has essentially secured the business community’s support for the forthcoming elections. Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE), commented on the new RUIE-RAL cooperation agreement as follows: “Medvedev is a qualified lawyer and one of the successor candidates. It is convenient for us to cooperate with him.”

This means that the successor now has a structured network of campaign staff, according to Mikhail Vinogradov, deputy director of the Russian Political Conjuncture Center. Vinogradov told Vedomosti that the RAL’s specific nature would prevent it from being used as the campaign’s brain center. Pavel Krasheninnikov, RAL chief executive and chairman of the Duma’s legislation committee, denied that the project has any political subtext.

Lenta.ru maintains that since Medvedev now has his own campaign staff and network in the regions, it means he has pulled ahead of the other potential successor – Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Lenta.ru: “Although Ivanov has a television channel of his own (the Zvezda military channel), he has nothing even remotely like the RAL structure. So Ivanov will have to get busy now, if he doesn’t want the gap between himself and Medvedev to expand into a chasm.”

The Gazeta newspaper maintains that a worthy replacement for Putin has been found. “Putin was the heir of Yeltsin, and thus also the heir of the oligarchs, most of whom he managed to drive out of politics,” says journalist Nikolai Vardul. “Medvedev doesn’t have any oligarchic birthmarks. Putin made his political career in the KGB and its successor-services. Medvedev is a civilian – a lawyer specializing in corporate law, among other areas. Instead of the KGB, his background includes Gazprom – which the Europeans now fear almost as much as the KGB… Most importantly, voters will remember Putin as a bold silovik: his famous soundbite about ‘killing them off in the toilets,’ his New Year visit to a Chechnya that was still at war, accompanied by Boyarsky and Rozenbaum. But Medvedev is not a silovik. Russia is rather tired of having siloviki in power. Medvedev will come after Putin, and be closer to civil society.”

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