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Russia: Putin Hands Reins To Medvedev, But Remains In Control

By Chloe Arnold

MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin formally steps down after eight years as Russia's president on May 7. He hands the running of the country to Dmitry Medvedev, a loyal and longtime aide who sailed through the polls earlier this year, firmly backed by the president.

Millions of viewers across the country will tune in to state television to watch the inauguration ceremony. Officiating at the grand ceremony inside the Kremlin will be the heads of the Constitutional Court, the Central Election Commission, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister and chairman of the board of Russian state energy giant Gazprom, is succeeding his political mentor and close friend Putin, who is constitutionally barred from a third term as president.

Speaking at his final cabinet meeting as president on May 5, Putin thanked his administration and talked of the tasks ahead. "I want to wish everyone success in their work for the good of Russia," Putin said. "A lot of intensive work lies ahead. I'm sure that all of you are ready for it and I'm sure we will achieve our goals. And certainly, I want to wish Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev success."

But how much power will Medvedev really wield?

Few in Russia see the handover as anything but cosmetic. Putin still enjoys enormous support among Russians, and it is widely thought that he will continue to run the country in his next role, as prime minister.

"I think, in all honesty, it's not possible to talk of any real handover of power," says Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "All the structures of power that were formed under Putin will remain in place. Moreover, Putin has taken all measures to ensure that in his new position as prime minister he will retain much of the powers he previously held as president, and to make certain that his role has been strengthened in relation to that of the president."

Power To The PM

Putin, who as prime minister will be head of government, has planned the power transfer very carefully, says Volk. Last week Putin signed a decree that shifts the supervision of regional governors to the government, rather than the presidential administration. He also approved a law that makes local government officials directly accountable to regional governors.

"Everything is being done in the government's favor to wield authority and power," Volk argues. "Putin has already put into place a raft of changes -- transferring people to the government who used to take care of his image-making, PR people, speechwriters. And I think this process of the steady flow of those influential people who worked under Putin in the presidential administration to the government, it is set to continue."

For Aleksei Malashenko, a political expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the reason for this is simple: Putin intends to return to power.

"I think that the best way, the best method for Putin, is to tie Medvedev's hands," Malashenko says. "Of course, neither one will ever admit this, but that is how it is at the moment. And if we follow this logic, we can admit that Medvedev maybe will not stay president for four years. Maybe he will be replaced by Putin within a short period of time."

Top Dog

With Putin's formal support, Medvedev won an easy victory in a presidential election in March, scooping up over 70 percent of the vote. Medvedev, who graduated from the same law faculty at St. Petersburg State University as Putin, has spent most of his career working for Putin. As a loyal and longtime friend, there are suspicions that he will be a puppet president while Putin continues to pull the strings, perhaps even standing aside early to allow Putin to return to the presidency.

But Malashenko counters that there is a danger that, in time, Medvedev -- a young leader, at 42 -- might not want to play that game.

"I think that [Putin] will perform two roles -- the role of prime minister, but also [of] president, the real president," Malashenko says. "But at the same time, I don't believe that Medvedev wants to keep the situation as it is now. Maybe he will dare to invite onto his team some new people, maybe moderate, more liberal [politicians] than [those on] Putin's team. That's quite possible."

Volk suggests, however, that any disagreements between the two men are likely to be resolved in Putin's favor.

"I don't exclude there being contradictions between the two men, particularly on the topic of inflation," Volk says. "If prices continue to rise -- and this is inevitable, in my view, in the current economic climate -- then I think Medvedev will be forced to find a scapegoat. And he may not be supported in this by the prime minister and the government."

Medvedev is expected to name his new administration by the end of this week.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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