Will Putin Pull Medvedev's Strings?

Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev i i

Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, attend an Easter service in Moscow last month. Medvedev is expected to name Putin prime minister. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images
Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev

Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, attend an Easter service in Moscow last month. Medvedev is expected to name Putin prime minister.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Priorities for Russia

Dmitri Medvedev's new administration faces a host of challenges, both at home and abroad. Read about the issues that will be top priorities.

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.

Priorities for Russia's New Administration

Despite the trappings of luxury, much of Russia's population is near-destitute. i i

Despite the proliferation of fancy cars and luxury shopping areas such as this one in Moscow, much of Russia's population is near-destitute. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the trappings of luxury, much of Russia's population is near-destitute.

Despite the proliferation of fancy cars and luxury shopping areas such as this one in Moscow, much of Russia's population is near-destitute.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Here are some of the most pressing problems facing the new government of Dmitri Medvedev:

Corruption. Official corruption has skyrocketed under Putin. Last year, Russia tied for 143rd place out of 179 — along with Indonesia, Gambia and Togo — in a global survey of corruption perceptions by Berlin-based Transparency International. The state runs much of the country's oil and gas industry and is swallowing ever-larger parts of other sectors of the economy. State officials now control vast amounts of money, and businessmen say bureaucrats have taken the place of organized criminals as the main impediment to market competition.

Health. Russia's population is dying out. Infant mortality rates and low life expectancies — the average Russian man lives only to the age of 58 — are prompting a demographic crisis at a time the government is cracking down on much-needed migrant labor from other countries. Rampant alcoholism and diseases such as HIV/AIDS have grown under Putin. As first deputy prime minister, Medvedev spearheaded a so-called national program to improve Russia's health care, but experts say the project has been window dressing on a Soviet-era system that's practically in ruins.

Poverty. Moscow's streets may be jammed with Mercedes, Bentleys and BMWs on their way to fancy restaurants and luxury shops with some of the highest prices in the world, but much of Russia's population is near-destitute. The population in many parts of the countryside is vanishing as people move away from areas with no jobs, while the yawning gap between the super rich and the vast majority of Russians is ballooning. Russia is awash with money from its massive energy resources, but 12 percent inflation last year is making life increasingly difficult to afford even for the tiny middle class. Prices for some food products doubled in 2007 and are expected to continue rising this year.

Infrastructure. Tens of billions of dollars of Russia's energy wealth are channeled abroad each year, but very little is being spent on rebuilding decaying Soviet-era infrastructure. Roads and housing in much of Russia are in a dreadful state. Manufacturing has never recovered from its post-communist collapse, and most of the products Russians buy are imported. But economists are especially worried about the state-owned energy industry. They say not nearly enough is being invested into developing natural gas fields and oil deposits, and that Russia may not be able to supply even its own energy needs in just a few years.

Foreign policy. Russia's relations with the West are so bad some Russia observers are talking about a new Cold War. Putin has boosted his popularity at home by opposing Western countries on almost every issue, including sanctions against Iran and independence for Kosovo. Moscow led opposition to the United States over the war in Iraq and has threatened to direct nuclear missiles against Europe if Washington builds its planned missile defense system there. Moscow also has imposed trade embargoes and cut energy supplies to pro-Western, former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine. Russia's bloated and corrupt military may be in shambles, but Moscow believes its energy wealth entitles it to respect on the world stage — and the Kremlin has looked to the old Soviet model of obfuscation and intimidation. Experts say Russia would be far better served by integrating with the international community. One political analyst says Russia's foreign policy priority is to simply stop pretending it's a superpower.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.