As Russia prepares for March 2 presidential elections, it enters an era of political uncertainty it hasn't seen since President Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin eight years ago.
Putin's longtime protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to emerge as the victor, thanks to the support of the Kremlin's political and media muscle. But what policies a President Medvedev might pursue — or even whether he will be more than a figurehead — are a mystery.
Medvedev has said he will ask his friend and mentor, Putin, to become his prime minister, and emphasizes that he will pursue Putin's policies. If Putin accepts the premiership, Medvedev is expected to serve as Putin's understudy through at least his first months in office — an unprecedented situation.
He will face huge challenges at home and abroad. Within eight months he will be facing a new U.S. president-elect, while inheriting relations with the West that are at their lowest ebb since the Soviet era. Russia's next leader needs to come to an understanding with Europe and the U.N. about future NATO expansion and plans for an anti-missile system near Russia's borders. And he must reassure the world that Russia is a constructive, unthreatening partner while maintaining ties with Iran, North Korea and other regimes considered pariahs in the West.
If Medvedev has any new ideas for dealing with these issues, he hasn't revealed them in his carefully scripted public appearances. He hasn't even formally campaigned or agreed to debate his rivals.
He has, however, given voters a glimpse behind his serious public face, as he did Monday when the rock group "Deep Purple" performed a concert for him at the Kremlin. He spoke nostalgically about being a fan as a teenager, when the band's music was forbidden in the Soviet Union.
"It would be completely surreal to imagine that I would meet this legendary band in the Kremlin, but it happened," Medvedev said with a broad smile.
Experts say Putin could become a kind of presidential adviser and coach to this 42-year-old, who would be the youngest Russian leader since Alexander Kerensky, at 36, was prime minister in the last months before the 1917 communist revolution.
Putin could exercise behind-the-scenes influence as he gradually relinquishes power. Or he might establish himself as a kind of permanent co-president, directing Russia's intelligence, defense and foreign policy efforts, for example, while leaving domestic matters to Medvedev.
'You walk with Peter the Great'
Dmitry Trenin, an author and analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, doubts Medvedev will be content with a supporting role forever.
"When you become No. 1 formally, you walk with Peter the Great, the Ivans, the Alexanders of Russia," Trenin said. "You've got to think of yourself as a czar. You cannot simply say I am a figurehead, or holding a place for somebody else."
Nina Khrushcheva, an analyst at the World Policy Institute of New York City's New School, has long been critical of Putin. In an e-mail interview, she wrote that the Russian president's hand-picked successor "has been an obedient flunky of Putin, and all his speeches on law, civil society, combating corruption ... haven't convinced me otherwise."
But Khrushcheva also noted that Russian politics often defies expectations. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sought to dismantle the legacy of his patron, the dictator Josef Stalin; and Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power was supported by the KGB, but his reforms hastened the collapse of the Soviet state.
"So I think the question 'Who are you Mr. Medvedev?' on March 2, 2008, will be even more appropriate than the one asked of Mr. Putin in 2000," Khrushcheva wrote.
Others in the Russian race
The other candidates on the ballot are the pugnacious nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and long-haired leader of Russia's largest Masonic lodge, Andrei Bogdanov.
None is thought to have a serious chance of winning.
The Deep Purple concert aside, Medvedev has done little to dispel his media image as a fixer, policy wonk and levelheaded adviser to Putin.
He has served in the Kremlin in a series of subordinate roles. While he is chairman of the board of the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, some analysts say his main role there is to execute Putin's orders.
Medvedev has said little about his foreign policy views. While Putin recently said that the U.S. insistence on building a new missile defense system in Poland and the Czech republic had launched a new arms race, Medvedev earlier said publicly he saw no "fundamental problems" in Russia's relations with the West.
Medvedev has spoken with evident conviction about democracy, saying it is "absolutely fundamental" and the only alternative to "a dictatorial or totalitarian regime." But Medvedev has worked for Putin for eight years, as the current Russian president dismantled many of Russia's democratic reforms of the 1990s, concentrated power in the Kremlin and used the power of the state to crush political foes.
Critics say Russia is returning to an authoritarian system. Kremlin officials have said they are building a "managed" or "sovereign" democracy, tailored to Russia's tradition of strong central authority.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January 2007, Medvedev suggested he disagreed with the prevailing Kremlin line when he said Russia was building a democracy that "requires no additional definition."
But in a recent speech, Medvedev hinted that he thinks Russia may need a form of democracy unrecognizable in the West after all. One of the big issues facing Russia, he said, "is how to combine, how to ensure that our national tradition reconciles with a fundamental set of democratic values."
The candidate has also recently contrasted Russian human rights groups that are "fighting against the state," with those that "work with people to protect their rights and to defend their civil liberties." While gently stated, the message seemed to be that groups that criticize the government are illegitimate.
While Medvedev hasn't criticized any of Putin's policies so far, there are marked differences of style between mentor and protege.
The man blushes
Where Putin sometimes uses gangster slang to make a point, Medvedev's remarks sound like academic lectures. Putin makes a point of dressing down Russian officials on television, and is famous for being unapologetically late for appointments. In a recent speech Medvedev asked forgiveness in advance for planning to take up so much of his audience's time.
Medvedev also sometimes blushes in public — something unthinkable for the world's most famous former KGB spy.
In preparation for his new role, Medvedev is struggling to squeeze himself into Putin's mold. Putin is an avid swimmer, so Medvedev has started swimming. Putin loves to ski, so Medvedev tackled the slopes in a resort near the Black Sea city of Sochi one recent weekend.
A bartender at a resort near Sochi once refused to let Putin pay for a cup of tea, and the Russian president famously gave the man his ski goggles. In an awkward bit of political theater, Medvedev handed his goggles to a waiter at a ski resort early this month.
"He's working on himself," Trenin said of Medvedev. "He's trying to crack jokes. He's trying to be relaxed... He is very much walking in the footsteps of Putin, even in a very comical way."
Trenin of the Moscow Center predicted that the world probably won't know who Russia's new president really is, or where he plans to take the country, until several months into his term.
"We'll probably see it when he becomes president in his own right, after a mentoring period or regency period. Then we may see Medvedev's true colors," he said.