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Putin’s Unwilling Executioner?

MOSCOW – The question that has dominated Russian politics, and world discussion of Russian politics – “Will he (Vladimir Putin) or won’t he stay in power?” – has now been settled. He will and he won’t.

The election of Putin’s longtime acolyte and handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, as Russia’s president means that Putin is formally surrendering all the pomp and circumstance of Kremlin power. But now it looks like 21-gun salutes and first place in protocol lines are the only things that Putin is giving up – if that. In opting to become President Medvedev’s prime minister, Putin sees himself as coming closer to the machine of power, because he will obtain minute-by-minute control of the government.

This bizarre transfer of office but not power – perhaps a slight improvement on state governors in the American south who used to hand their offices to their wives when their term-limits expired – is Putin’s scenario. But what if it is not Medvedev’s? What if Medvedev, after a few years, becomes as independent of his patron as Putin became of Boris Yeltsin, the man who put him on the Kremlin throne? Should that turn out to be the case, it will be useful to know what, if anything, Medvedev stands for.

One thing immediately stands out about Medvedev: he has only indirect ties to the siloviki , the ex-KGB and military men who have dominated the Putin era. As a trained lawyer, he should in principle understand the importance of the rule of law. And, as deputy prime minister since 2005, he oversaw the Russian National Priority Projects (a set of policies to develop social welfare), which has given him a clearer insight into Russia’s deep flaws than any of the siloviks , with their focus on getting and maintaining personal power, could ever have.