In Search of Medvedev, Russia's Heir Apparent

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It's widely accepted in Russia that when President Vladimir Putin steps down later this year, 42-year-old protege Dmitri Medvedev will succeed him. But few political observers are sure what kind of leader Medvedev might be.


Russian President Vladimir Putin will step down as president later this year, and he has already anointed a successor. He's a 42-year-old protegee named Dmitry Medvedev. Plenty is known about Medvedev's stylist dress sense and even his taste in rock music. And nobody doubts that he will win the election in March. What is not clear is what kind of leader he'll be, or whether the future president will be running the country at all.

NPR's Gregory Feiffer traveled to Medvedev's hometown of St. Petersburg to try to find out.

GREGORY FEIFFER: Medvedev and Putin have known each other 17 years, and share more than just the same birthplace of St. Petersburg. Both attended law school at what was then called Leningrad State University. Medvevdev, born into a family of professors, studied there in the 1980s before going on to teach law.

Today, the law school's corridors bustle with students. And since Putin picked Medvedev as his chosen successor last December, it's been home to a growing Medvedev legend.

Dean Mikhail Kropachev(ph) taught Medvedev and talks about his former student as if he's already president.

Dean MIKHAIL KROPHACHEV (Law, Saint-Petersburg State University, Russia): (Through translator) Dmitry is an intellectual, a man of principles. He'll fight for those principles with the full force of his character. And that's considerable. He's strong, masculine, responsible and well-organized.

FEIFFER: Medvedev is now a first deputy prime minister and seen by some as a relative liberal and a Kremlin dominated by former KGB officers. The diminutive official has a penchant for natty, thick ties and listens to the rock group Deep Purple. But those who know Medvedev say his reputation as a nice guy is deceptive.

Law Professor Natalia Shatihinas(ph) studied under Medvedev in the 1990s, and remembers him as strict and reserved.

Professor NATALIA SHATIHINAS (Law): (Through translator) Dmitry was demanding and poked fun at anyone showing signs of laziness. He'd say things like I know law books are heavy, and not everyone can lug them to class, but maybe you can just try extra hard next time.

FEIFFER: In the late 1980s, Medvedev went to work for the city administration under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a crusading reformer. That's where Medvedev first met Putin, a former KGB officer who also found work under the mayor after the Soviet collapse. Putin became a father figure for Medvedev and later brought him to Moscow to head his presidential campaign.

As president, Putin appointed Medvedev to government and named him chairman of Gazprom, the giant state natural gas monopoly.

St. Petersburg opposition leader Olga Kurnosova was a local legislator in the 1990s. She says Medvedev's key political attribute is loyalty.

Ms. OLGA KURNOSOVA (Opposition Leader, Saint Petersburg, Russia): (Through translator) Medvedev had no influence in St. Petersburg. He's not an able politician. He's never been elected to office. He's a mid-ranking bureaucrat and that's the extent of his capabilities.

FEIFFER: During his eight years as president, Putin rolled back Russia's democratic reforms and instituted Soviet-style authoritarianism. In recent appearances, Medvedev has sounded increasingly stern, much like Putin himself. And during his nomination as presidential candidate, Medvedev said he'd continue with Putin's policies.

Mr. DMITRY MEDVEDEV (First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): (Through translator) It's a direction picked by our people, a direction that saved the economy and social services from collapsing. It stopped civil war from breaking out. Other countries no longer lecture us like school children. We're once again respected in the world.

FEIFFER: Many believe Putin plans to hold on to power after he leaves the presidency, if only to balance the rival Kremlin clans battling each other behind the scenes. Few were surprised when Medvedev's first public act as presidential candidate was to announce he'd appoint Putin to be his prime minister.

Sitting in a bar in St. Petersburg, newspaper editor Dmitri Provins(ph) says Medvedev would be a weak president, unlikely to oppose his mentor.

Mr. DMITRI PROVINS (Newspaper Editor): (Through translator) Putin has a much greater chance of being able to continue effectively controlling the country under Medvedev's presidency than under any other potential successor.

FEIFFER: But despite all the signs Medvedev is dependent on Putin, most political observers say it will become clear only after the election what kind of president he'd make or whether a two-man rule could work in Russia.

Gregory Feiffer, NPR News.

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