A Weak Medvedev, a Strong Putin

President Vladimir Putin has picked a weak figure with his decision Monday to back Dmitry Medvedev as the next president -- indicating that Putin intends to wield considerable influence after he steps down next year.

Medvedev -- a soft-spoken lawyer who chairs the country's biggest company, Gazprom, and holds the post of first deputy prime minister -- has developed a reputation of being a follower and team player rather than a leader in the eight years since Putin brought him to Moscow from St. Petersburg. While Medvedev's acquaintances praise him for having leadership skills such as a knack for learning quickly and the integrity to stand by what he believes, the reason Putin chose him is more likely their close personal relationship, which goes back to the early 1990s when they worked together in St. Petersburg City Hall. Medvedev, unlike most people in Putin's circle, does not treat him like a master.

Tellingly, Valery Musin, Medvedev's former academic adviser at Leningrad State University, had this to say to Moscow Times reporter Nabi Abdullaev in a profile of Medvedev published last month: "Medvedev's personality was shaped under Putin's strong influence, and he worships Putin like a father figure, or at least like an older brother."

A Medvedev presidency offers Putin the best guarantee possible that the country will follow his path after he leaves office. Putin has repeatedly said that a continuation of his policies is his main concern. In fact, he made the entire State Duma elections a referendum on his policies.

Medvedev has an encouraging track record in his own right. He is seen as a liberal reformer at heart, and his knowledge on a variety of issues, English skills and easy-going manner have won over wary foreign investors at several conferences, including the World Economic Forum in Davos last January. His training as a lawyer gives him a vital background to oversee the drafting of federal legislation. Just as important, he rejects the notion of sovereign democracy, which has been promoted by Kremlin spin doctors to conceal a lack of democracy in Russia. When qualifiers are added to the term "democracy," the word acquires "a strange taste," Medvedev said in July 2006. "This creates the impression that we are talking about a nontraditional democracy, and this immediately establishes a particular perspective."

Medvedev also is not associated with the Kremlin siloviki, the security and law enforcement officials who are embroiled in a multibillion-dollar turf war.

In fact, he does not seem to be beholden to anyone but Putin. That means Putin would not need to worry about being sidelined once he leaves office -- a fear that he has good reason to nurture since he himself turned on the oligarchs who propelled him to power after moving into the Kremlin in 2000.