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The Malleable Mr. Medvedev

LONDON – As Dmitri Medvedev waits in the wings for his inauguration on May 7, the West is examining his every word, eager for the slightest sign that Russia’s new president will be more “reasonable” and easier to deal with than Vladimir Putin, the man who got him elected.

If one is selective with the evidence, a semi-reasonable case can be built for those desperate enough to believe it. Medvedev was in his twenties when the Soviet Union broke up, and thus is less “contaminated” by a Soviet mentality. He is a fluent English speaker who does not have a secret-service background and has been dealing with the West for almost a decade as the Russian energy industry’s leading figure. Moreover, he is a lawyer by training – presumably instilling in him at least some respect for the rule of law – and his pronouncements and interviews thus far have been largely moderate, even liberal­.

Unfortunately, however, words mean almost nothing in such a Byzantine country. In fact, Medvedev will be Russia’s most malleable leader since Tsar Nicholas II. While Medvedev’s liberal instincts are debatable, the forces arrayed against him not in doubt are: the Sechin clan, the Cherkessov clan, the siloviki of the military and security services, his rivals who he beat to the top job, and of course, his predecessor and mentor, Putin.

The irony is that Medvedev has almost no room for maneuver, despite holding one of the most powerful presidencies in the world. His popularity has been bestowed, not earned, so it can be taken away as easily as it was given.