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Putin’s pick coasts to victory

By Denebola
Published: March 2008

By Alex Tolkin

The Russian presidential elections on March 2, 2008 resulted in the election of Dmitri Medvedev, a largely unknown law professor and former deputy prime minister.
The presidential race was virtually a forgone conclusion. As expected, Medvedev cruised to victory with 70 percent of the vote.  Medvedev was actually relieved that he only won 70 percent because a larger margin of victory would have been “embarrassing.
Medvedev owes his electoral success solely to Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin.  Putin enjoys approval ratings of over 80 percent and his endorsement essentially guaranteed Medvedev the presidency.  Medvedev made one campaign appearance.
Critics have accused Putin of stifling democracy in Russia through intimidation. He is also accused of swaying the public opinion by focusing only on Russia’s booming economy. Putin is expected to continue to wield considerable influence.
He was voted in as prime minister with little opposition. Many suspect that Putin’s selection of Medvedev as his predecessor demonstrates his commitment to controlling Russia through loyal allies.  Putin is vastly more popular than Medvedev, which means that Putin may have virtual veto power over the new president’s decisions.  In speeches, Putin says Medvedev’s responsibility to Russia is to implement Putin’s reforms and not establish any of his own.
Medvedev has virtually no experience whatsoever in international relations.  As Russia becomes more powerful and bellicose, the United States wants Putin’s predecessor to be less antagonistic. As deputy prime minister, Medvedev represented Russia at several economic forums, but did not stretch his duties beyond that.
Medvedev is perceived to have a friendlier attitude towards the West than Putin does, and some analysts suspect that this image is part of the reason why Putin selected him.  Essentially, Medvedev would put a good face on Russian foreign policy while Putin manipulated it from the shadows. International observers are waiting to see how much influence Putin will wield.
Despite Putin’s potential control, there are signs that the new president represents a gravitation for Russia towards a more democratic state.  Medvedev’s limited rhetoric has been far more liberal than Putin’s, leading optimists to predict that the new president may push Russia closer to democracy.  The Russian political elite is reportedly expecting a more gentle authoritarianism from Medvedev. Any attempt to radically shift Russia’s direction, however, will lead to mass political infighting in the Kremlin. Medvedev will have to be careful that he does not push for radical reforms, or he may get no reforms at all.
Moreover, Russia’s economy is closely tied to its relatively weak political institutions. While the economy has been doing well, Russian economic institutions are weak, relying completely on the Kremlin. Putin had relied on the economic success of Russia as a source of political legitimacy. Medvedev hopes to avoid economic disruption to keep his political boat afloat.
Even though the election results in Russia were a forgone conclusion, the Medvedev presidency is not. Medvedev will inherit a nation uncertain of its own future and increasingly hostile towards the US and Europe. He will also inherit Putin’s legacy’€big shoes to fill for an inexperienced newcomer.
A power struggle may emerge, as Medvedev faces a prime minister who may have far more power than he does. The path Medvedev chooses could have dramatic ramifications not only for Russia, but also for the US.

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