Hawkish Bread on A Liberal Sandwich

President Dmitry Medvedev's first state-of-the-nation speech might be best described as a club sandwich.

Rather than sending out a straightforward message, Medvedev offered some liberal reformist proposals -- juicily sandwiched between layers of hawkish threats and announcements.

Medvedev began and ended his speech with a foreign policy message that seemed to confirm Western fears that he would follow former President Vladimir Putin's hawkish stance. But in between, he offered some domestic proposals welcomed by proponents of liberal change.

"The tone differed significantly between foreign policy and domestic issues," a senior Western diplomat said.

"There were many encouraging messages, especially regarding domestic policies and reforms," he added, speaking upon condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Yet in the middle of the domestic proposals, Medvedev announced that he would seek to extend the presidential term from four to six years, raising fears of a further consolidation of power in the Kremlin. Some analysts said this looked like a ploy to allow Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return to power for a much longer period than previously thought.

The Kremlin-friendly United Russia, which is headed by Putin, holds a constitutional majority in the State Duma.

Larisa Brychyova, the head of the Kremlin's legal department, said no referendum would be required to expand the presidential term and that the plan did not apply to the current president, Interfax reported.

But Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank, said Putin might return for 12 years well before Medvedev's current term ends in 2012.

Medvedev "could resign as soon as the Constitution has been changed," he said, adding that he did not believe that this had been Medvedev's idea. "In this case, Medvedev is Putin's marionette. The other political reforms are just candy."

Putin chose his longtime aide Medvedev as his preferred successor last year after announcing that he would step down as president after two consecutive terms, as required by the Constitution.

For his part, Medvedev stressed that he was not proposing constitutional reforms but merely "corrections."

Some government officials were also keen to downplay any fears.

With a longer presidential term, "pre-election squabbles will happen less frequently," Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, widely seen as a liberal reformer, told reporters after the speech.

It would be a "good period for any president to prove himself both in economics and politics," he said.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko said a longer presidential term would be "justified and correct" for a country as big as Russia. "Otherwise, the country will be drawn into permanent elections," she said.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said a term extension had been discussed for a long time. "We've insisted on that for many years," he said.

Medvedev seemingly tried to balance any worries with proposals for a range of domestic reforms, including lowering the threshold for political parties to enter the State Duma and changing the election rules for Federation Council senators.

Matviyenko said Medvedev would not dismantle Putin's legacy with liberal reforms. "On the contrary, [Medvedev] reiterated continuity of economic and political institutions," she said.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said he welcomed any changes that would give the opposition a greater voice. "We will see how they are implemented," he told reporters.

Perhaps less surprisingly, Medvedev reiterated his intent to crack down on corruption, calling it "Enemy No. 1," and to carry out legal reforms, with his old complaint that "legal nihilism" is gripping the country.

Yet significantly, he also criticized courts for handing down too harsh sentences, demanding that they "take a more balanced approach" instead of isolating individuals from society.

Human rights campaigners have petitioned for the release of Yukos lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, who is serving a 6 1/2-year sentence and is pregnant.

Medvedev criticized the U.S. plan to deploy elements of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, saying Russia would respond by placing missiles in Kaliningrad, near Poland, and accused the United States of being behind this year's biggest global problems, including the financial crisis and Russia's brief war with Georgia in August.

Yet Medvedev balanced his criticism by saying Russia had no problem with the American people. "We have no innate anti-Americanism."

Despite Medvedev's hawkish rhetoric, observers noted that much of what he had said was not new.

"There was nothing shocking or surprising, rather he was confirming what was already known," the Western diplomat said.

Stationing missiles in the Kaliningrad region, the country's westernmost exclave bordering Poland, was first proposed in July 2007 by Sergei Ivanov, then a first deputy prime minister.

And Medvedev's theory that the United States is to blame for this year's biggest problems reiterates the line carried by officials and state-controlled media.

Government officials have often suggested that Washington, which helped train and equip the Georgian army, tacitly encouraged Tbilisi to launch a military attack on South Ossetia, a charge that the United States has denied.

One foreign policy analyst said Medvedev was coy about announcing any grand new strategies because of uncertainty over the U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's future administration. "It is too early for surprises. They will only happen after the new administration is in place," said Timofei Bordachyov, deputy editor of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine.

"For Russia, Obama is just a promise, not a political reality," he said.