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Will Putin Pull Medvedev's Strings?

As Russia swears in a new president, there is one question on everyone's mind: whether Dmitri Medvedev — Vladimir Putin's hand-picked successor — will have any real power to chart his own course for Russia.

Medvedev assumes authority over a country with a booming oil economy, a repressive, authoritarian government and rotten relations with the West.

Four years ago, when a stern-faced Putin trod down endless red carpets to be inaugurated for his second term, the lavish ceremony looked more like a coronation. Putin was in the middle of a drive to create a strong government that would give the president vast powers.

But although Putin may be stepping down from the presidency today, he isn't leaving the scene.

'Direct Continuation' of Putin's Policies

As one of this first acts in office, Medvedev is expected to name Putin prime minister. Putin will also become head of the country's biggest political party. After Medvedev won the presidential election last March, the dapper lawyer with a relatively soft image and a penchant for Western hard rock music said he and Putin would rule Russia jointly, based on their complete trust in one another.

"I'm convinced our work together in an effective joint effort can bring about good results ... and become a very positive force in our country's development," Medvedev said.

The separation of powers between the president and prime minister would remain unchanged, Medvedev also said. But many Russians are convinced Putin will continue exercising real power behind the scenes as prime minister. He has already transferred some of the president's powers to the formerly weak post of prime minister. As leader of the majority party in parliament, Putin also would be able to initiate the president's impeachment and even change the constitution.

But it may not come to that. Medvedev has been at pains to indicate he won't veer off Putin's path.

"You can characterize my policies in different ways ... but the way I see them is as a direct continuation of the course President Putin has been following," Medvedev said.

Corruption Tops Long List of Domestic Problems

Russia's coffers may be overflowing from the sale of its vast oil and gas resources, but under Putin, official corruption has skyrocketed. Tens of billions of dollars are sent abroad each year, while very little is being invested into decaying Soviet-era infrastructure at home.

Rural Russia is dying out as jobs in the countryside disappear. Alcoholism and disease are growing. And double-digit inflation is making Russia's vast number of poor even poorer — as the number of billionaires in Moscow surpasses that of any other capital city.

Medvedev has promised a serious fight against corruption and to tackle other problems affecting average Russians.

But Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think-tank says that this, and other liberal-sounding pledges, are empty.

"Something could possibly change later on in Medvedev's presidency, but right after his inauguration nothing will change. Putin holds real power. Medvedev is just decoration," Pribylovsky says.

Foreign Challenges, Turf Wars Also Face Medvedev

Western countries are hoping Medvedev will at least change the tone of Russia's foreign policy. Ties between Russia and the West have deteriorated so much, some are even talking about a new Cold War. But Pribylovsky says Russia's confrontation with the West hasn't earned Moscow the respect it wants.

"Russia's main priority is to stop pretending it's a great power, which it isn't. Russia may have natural resources and a lot of potential, but it's a Third World country," Pribylovsky says.

Some say Medvedev's biggest problem will be how to deal with the turf wars between former KGB officers Putin has appointed to top positions. They may be more eager than anyone at Medvedev's inauguration to find out who will really be in charge of Russia.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.