Frodo Putin vs. Sam Medvedev

There was a striking contrast between Russians' heartfelt joy at Zenit's UEFA Cup victory and Russia's win over Canada in the World Hockey Championship, and an earlier celebration among young United Russia supporters who gathered on Red Square on the night of President Dmitry Medvedev's election. The election party looked more like a choreographed opera than a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm.

The lack of suspense over the election's outcome explains the widespread indifference to the event. Medvedev claimed that he would only know if he had won after the final election results were announced. That made him perhaps the only person in the country who -- starting from the moment when Putin named him as his successor -- was not sure who would be the next president.

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But the absence of suspense does not preclude the presence of human passions. These passions are boiling with an intensity more often found in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" than a news analysis.

Putin reluctantly became president and spent his second term insisting that he had no plans to remain in the Kremlin. The ruling elite panicked at the prospect of losing their president -- and along with him, their power -- and applied unprecedented pressure on him to remain in office by organizing a "mass movement" calling for a third term. But Putin found a way to step down, naming a successor at the end of 2007, promising to become prime minister, and agreeing to head United Russia -- despite having long denied any desire to do so.

I think Putin must have felt very uncomfortable last fall addressing the United Russia congress, which closely resembled a Soviet-era Communist Party congress, and a subsequent meeting of his supporters that looked like a cross between a U.S. political convention and a Vladimir Zhirinovsky rally. Putin's manner seemed to suggest that he was willing to go along with such nonsense out of a sense of obligation, and that once he had ensured a smooth transition of power, he would cast off the heavy burden of political duty.

But at the Red Square rally on the night of Medvedev's election, Putin gave the first clear indication of who rules Russia by "heavenly mandate" and who is "merely elected." I think that night marked the first time Putin began to look at the transition of power as not only a calculated political move, but as an impending change in his own status.

Throughout all of this, Medvedev has demonstrably behaved as a loyal Putin aide. Only once -- during a question-and-answer session when Medvedev declared that he would be handling Russia's foreign policy -- did something shine in his eyes that caused veteran political analysts to begin to look at him seriously.

Then came the inauguration. Putin, having given his farewell address, stepped aside and seemed to relax a bit. He facial expressions, usually tightly controlled, seemed to indicate "I am no longer No. 1." Medvedev lightened up for the first time during the review of troops at the Victory Day parade on Red Square. His whole countenance conveyed childish delight at the display of military hardware rolling past and flying overhead.

Then the workweek began. As Medvedev dealt with questions related to the disabled, Putin tackled the military's shipbuilding industry. It was Prime Minister Putin, and not President Medvedev, who dominated television news and newspaper headlines that day, continuing the saga titled "Russia implements a constitutional transfer of power for the first time in its 1,000-year history."

In the absence of political openness, we can only hope that neither Frodo Putin nor Sam Medvedev will allow themselves to become bewitched by the Great Ring of Power, of which they are both the keepers.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.