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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Soft-Spoken, 'Smart Kid' Lawyer

Itar-TassMedvedev visiting a maternity ward in the Moscow region on Oct. 10. Heath care is one of his four national projects.
None of Dmitry Medvedev's friends can remember hearing him bark an order. If he ever did, it would sound forced, they said.

Soft-spoken and a full 10 centimeters shorter than the diminutive President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev is a far cry from what the public expects in a leader, political consultants said.

But people who know Medvedev personally said he has many leadership traits, including a knack for learning quickly, the integrity to stand by what he believes, and the aptitude to work as a team player.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that his chances of becoming the next president rest solely on whether he wins Putin's backing. Voters are expected to elect whomever Putin names as his preferred successor in the election next March.

Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, has a relationship with Putin unlike that of any other possible candidate: While other, older contenders, such as Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, treat Putin like the master, the 42-year-old Medvedev looks up to Putin like a father, friends and political analysts said.

"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," said Valery Musin, Medvedev's former academic adviser and law professor at Leningrad State University.

Putin and Medvedev both attended law classes taught by future St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak at Leningrad State University, although more than a decade apart. Sobchak later called on Putin, Medvedev and Musin to work in City Hall.

Different types of people have led the country from the Kremlin, including the "chatterbox" Mikhail Gorbachev, the "macho" Boris Yeltsin and the "soldier of the empire" Vladimir Putin, said Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Putin spin doctor who heads the Institute of National Strategy, a think tank.

"Medvedev would be the 'smart kid' type, and Russians would accept him under the right circumstances," he said.

Medvedev seems to have filled the role of a "smart kid" since he took his first steps. He is the only child of two St. Petersburg university professors. He understood the value of education and studied hard, participated in the local Komsomol youth group, and earned the respect of other students, said Irina Grigorovskaya, a math teacher at St. Petersburg School No. 305 who has known Medvedev since he was 11.

"Medvedev was very focused on what he was doing and polite," she said.

"But, you know, frankly, there were many others like him," she said.

Medvedev met his future wife, Svetlana, at the school, and they both graduated in 1982. The couple has one son, Ilya, 11.

Five years ago, Medvedev, then a deputy chief of the presidential administration, organized a 20-year class reunion in St. Petersburg. "He was very open and easygoing with the others there," Grigorovskaya said.

Medvedev entered law school at Leningrad State University in the fall of 1982, and he developed a reputation as a hardworking student and team player, Musin said. "I remember him and another student, Anton Ivanov, digging potatoes together during a trip to a collective farm where students helped gather the crops," Musin said. "Medvedev was good company for us."

Ivanov, then a close friend of Medvedev's, is now chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court.

After graduating in 1987, Medvedev decided to become a professor like his parents, and he completed the university's doctoral program in 1990. He taught law there on and off until 1999, when Putin brought him to Moscow.

Meeting Putin

Sobchak offered Medvedev and Putin jobs shortly after he was elected mayor in 1991. Putin took over the city committee on external relations, while Medvedev became a Sobchak adviser and legal consultant for Putin's committee.

"Several times we briefed Putin together on various legal issues, and I noticed that Putin regarded Medvedev's recommendations with respect," Musin said. "Medvedev may seem soft and pliable as a team member, but he is quite rigid on the things that he believes are right."

Later this firmness would assert itself in Medvedev's incessant denial of the notion of sovereign democracy, a term coined by Vladislav Surkov, a deputy head of the presidential administration who once served under Medvedev in the Kremlin. The term sovereign democracy -- used to describe how Russia's democracy differs from that in the West -- has been eagerly picked up by Putin and widely exploited by pro-Putin party United Russia.

"I still don't like this term," Medvedev said in an interview with Vedomosti in July. "In my opinion as a lawyer, playing up one feature of a full-fledged democracy -- namely the supremacy of state authorities within the country and their independence [from influences] outside the country -- is excessive and even harmful because it is disorienting."

Medvedev's aide responsible for media relations, Zhanna Odintsova, declined repeated requests for an interview for this report. For more than a month she also turned down requests to accompany Medvedev on one of his frequent trips around the country, citing a lack of space among the pool of reporters who travel with Medvedev.

In 1996, Putin's and Medvedev's paths parted after Sobchak lost his post in elections. Putin eventually got a job in Moscow at the Kremlin's property department, and Medvedev returned to teaching and went into private business. In 1998, he served as chairman of the Bratsk Forestry Complex.

Foursa Rostislav / Reuters
Medvedev attending a Gazprom meeting that elected him chairman in 2000.
Few Clues in the Kremlin

Putin hired Medvedev as deputy head of the government administration in November 1999, within three months of being named prime minister. A month later, Yeltsin resigned and Putin appointed Medvedev as deputy head of the presidential administration. Three years later, Medvedev was named head of the administration.

"Medvedev is very soft and psychologically dependent on Putin," Belkovsky said. "This is extremely important for Putin. He needs to feel comfortable with his subordinates."

Inside the Kremlin, Medvedev aligned himself with a powerful clan often described as the St. Petersburg lawyers or technocrats. This group is thought to have a more liberal view on the state's role in the economy, foreign policy and civil liberties than the other major Kremlin clan, the siloviki, which consists of hawkish defense and security service officials.

It is difficult to discern to what extent Medvedev's purported liberal economic views have shaped the aggressive, expansionist policies of Gazprom, which he has led as chairman since June 2000. The state-controlled gas giant has shown no qualms about using the state's muscle to edge out independent rivals in recent years.

As pressure was mounting on TNK-BP to let Gazprom into its lucrative Kovykta gas field last summer amid state threats to revoke a key license, Medvedev said in the Vedomosti interview that key sectors of the economy such as energy and the defense industry should remain in state hands.

"Don't blame him," Belkovsky said. "Putin is the real master of Gazprom, and Medvedev is just his envoy."

Medvedev said in the interview that the state should privatize some strategic enterprises like Gazprom one day, but that for now, state control ensured that the company had the political clout needed to expand at home and abroad.

In the Kremlin administration, Medvedev oversaw judicial reforms that he said would make the courts more transparent and open to ordinary people. In February 2005, when the court system was under fierce fire at the height of the Yukos affair, Medvedev announced that his reform was complete and the courts were finally "genuinely independent."

At the end of the year, Putin made the shock announcement that Medvedev, still largely unknown to the public, had been promoted to first deputy prime minister. Stunned politicians and Kremlin watchers immediately declared that Medvedev was Putin's likely successor.

Presidential Material?


Dmitry Yevgenyevich Medvedev

Born: Sept. 14, 1965

Place of Birth: St. Petersburg

Education: Leningrad State University, degree in law, 1987; doctorate in law, 1990.

Notable Quotes: Advantages: Close to Putin and his St. Petersburg circle; reputation of being a liberal intellectual; embraced by foreign investors; has refrained from hawkish foreign policy remarks

Disadvantages: No proven record of being effective civil servant because the outcome of the national projects being supervised by him have yet to materialize; lacks ability to motivate subordinates; not popular among the siloviki

Notable quotes: "Democracy and national sovereignty need to be together. But one should not overwhelm the other." Interview with Expert magazine, July 2006

"I was not born a boss, right? I always liked what I did, in the Kremlin administration and now in the White House." Interview with Itogi magazine, April 2007

"I would like very much for Gazprom to become the most expensive company in the world." Interview with Vedomosti, July 5, 2007

The once obscure Medvedev quickly became a household name, with the state television channels providing extensive coverage of his activities. Putin made sure journalists had news to report, placing Medvedev in charge of the multibillion-dollar national projects to improve health care, education, housing and agriculture.

Medvedev's popularity ratings soared, passing the other lead contender for the presidency, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and leaving him second only to Putin. His ratings, however, began to slump earlier this year as people noticed a disconnect between his social spending promises and their unchanged well-being, sociologists said.

If the presidential election were to be held today, 26 percent of Russians would vote for Medvedev, compared with 25 percent for Ivanov, according to the most recent nationwide survey by the independent Levada Center. They were the top two names in the survey, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. In a sign of growing dissatisfaction with Medvedev's work, a separate Levada survey in August found that 53 percent of Russians felt that the national projects have had no impact on their lives. An overwhelming 74 percent said the money allocated for the projects would be wasted or stolen.

New housing remains out of reach for most Russians, education standards are still sagging, and food prices are continuing to grow -- trends that could provide siloviki rivals with damaging ammunition should Medvedev run for president.

Medvedev's appearance has changed noticeably since he was appointed first deputy prime minister. He has lost weight, his facial features have gotten tighter, and he has learned to talk more firmly and confidently. Observers said he seemed to be modeling himself after Putin.

"Medvedev has made progress in sharpening his new image, but he has not been able to get rid of his softness. He still looks like a scholar straight out of a library," said Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

Moreover, the weight loss has revealed Medvedev's thin shoulders, and he has taken to wearing old-fashioned double-breasted suits, she noted.

The lack of visible toughness in Medvedev should be treated as an asset, said Igor Yurgens, vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, the country's biggest lobby group.

"Medvedev is the kind of a leader who doesn't bark orders but works with people and shares the proceeds with them," Yurgens said.

"I believe that modern Russians who understand that the economy can't be run by loud commands will support Medvedev, just like I do," he said.

Yurgens pointed to Medvedev's work with former Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov as an example of how a businesslike, nonpolitical approach could benefit government. As the overseer of health care reform, Medvedev had every right to attack Zurabov, widely blamed for a government failure to provide cheap medicine to the poor, Yurgens said. But instead, he said, Medvedev focused on the elements of Zurabov's program that were working and tried to push them forward. Zurabov was ousted in a government shake-up in September.

Attempts like this to be a team player will prevent Medvedev from becoming president, said Mikhail Delyagin, a longtime government economic adviser who now heads the Institute of Globalization Problems.

"Medvedev has such a weak personality that he would be raped by lobbyists right on his table on the second day of his presidency, and Putin knows this," he said.

Medvedev lacks a thirst for power and the skills needed to lead and motivate people, Delyagin said. "Unlike Putin -- who understands that rage is a big part of the Russian nature and aptly manages this knowledge -- Medvedev is a refined and pleasant nobleman's son who can't force his will on anyone," he said.

He grudgingly allowed, though, that Medvedev was a good manager when given a well-defined task.

Medvedev's softness may degenerate into fickleness, and this is not what Putin wants during the transition of power next year, Stanovaya said.

Furthermore, the appointment of Zubkov as prime minister in September dealt a serious blow to Medvedev's presidential prospects, she said. Zubkov, who has shouted at Cabinet meetings and projects the image of a tough but fair boss, fits the popular perception of a national leader better than Medvedev, she said.

"Zubkov also has taken over the role of defender of the poor from Medvedev," she said.

But the Westernized middle class, Yurgens said, would largely vote for Medvedev, relating to his enthusiasm for the British hard rock band Deep Purple and appreciation for "Olbanian," the slang that Russians use in Internet forums. Asked during an online call-in conference in March whether Olbanian should become a school subject, Medvedev said, "One cannot ignore the necessity of learning the Olbanian language."

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates. Previous profiles can be read on The Moscow Times web site,