Medvedev to sum up his 4 years in Putin's shadow

December 21, 2011 - 6:31 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — President Dmitry Medvedev will make his last state-of-the-nation address on the darkest day of the year. It's inadvertent but appropriate timing for the man whose four years in office may be best remembered for imposing a time change that forces millions of Russians to go to work in the dark.

Medvedev occasionally raised hopes he would soften the tight control that predecessor Vladimir Putin crafted, but his reformist words were accompanied by little action and he is largely seen as a pliant placeholder for the man who has dominated Russia for over a decade.

His speech before the newly elected parliament on Thursday will be closely watched for the government's response to the street protests that have drawn tens of thousands since the fraud-tainted Dec. 4 vote.

Medvedev said over the weekend that Russia's political system has "exhausted itself" and needs modernization, and he is expected to spell out details in his address.

The rallies in Moscow and as many as 60 other cities have reflected a weariness with Putin's rule. After eight years as president, Putin stepped into the prime minister's office so as not to violate a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms, but his return to the presidency in the March election no longer looks to be as easy as once expected.

Sensing the threat posed by the largest show of popular discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Putin and Medvedev have promised political reforms. Putin signaled the direction of changes last week when he said he would support easing registration rules for political parties and the return of direct elections for governors, which he abolished years ago.

But he added that candidates for governors would need to be vetted by the president, a provision that means little would change. Any change to allow more political parties also would have limited impact before the next national parliamentary election in 2016.

"Medvedev will likely say the same thing using different words," said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent analyst. "He hopes to remain part of the system and follows the simple rule of never running ahead of the boss, and we all know who the boss is."

The opposition has seen the proposals as window dressing and continues to demand an election rerun and the ouster of election officials accused of orchestrating the fraud. Putin and Medvedev have bluntly rejected the demands, saying the results reflected the people's will.

Putin's United Russia party lost nearly 25 percent of its seats, barely retaining a majority in the elected lower house, and the opposition and independent observers said even that result was achieved by widespread fraud.

The outcome further weakened the position of Medvedev, whom Putin charged with leading the party through the parliamentary election with the promise of appointing him prime minister when he vacates the position next year.

Medvedev has been a lame duck ever since he and Putin announced in September that they intended to swap places. Their announcement, which they said was based on an agreement made years ago, was seen as a cynical manipulation of the political process and outraged many Russians.

Even though most Russians understood that Putin had remained in charge, some had cherished hopes of liberal change under Medvedev and wanted to see him remain president and eventually shed the authoritarian legacy of his mentor.

After his election in 2008 at the age of 42, Medvedev had raised hopes with promises to allow greater political competition, protect media freedoms, liberalize the economy and combat graft. His famous statement that "freedom is better than non-freedom" warmed many hearts, and his open manner and easy smile contrasted sharply with the steely demeanor of his mentor.

Medvedev has delivered little.

Allegations of massive corruption have continued to haunt the large state-controlled companies led by Putin's lieutenants, opposition parties have been denied registration, the parliament has remained a mere rubber stamp for government decisions and the nationwide TV stations have continued to serve as a propaganda machine for the government.

"Many people hoped that Medvedev could shake up the bureaucratic machine and fight corruption, but it all has been limited to words," said Valery Khomyakov, the head of the Council for National Strategy, an independent Moscow-based think tank.

The killings of Anna Politkovskaya and other prominent journalists have remained unsolved and Russia has remained one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

The investigation into the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the same Interior Ministry officials he accused of corruption, has fizzled despite Medvedev's acknowledgement of official crimes in the case and his promise to punish the culprits.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, who has been in prison since 2003 on charges widely seen as Putin's revenge for challenging his power, saw his term extended by several more years last December.

The iPad-toting, tweeting Medvedev has tirelessly promoted his pet project of creating a Russian version of Silicon Valley in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo, but the Russian economy has continued to rely almost exclusively on exports of raw materials, while the crumbling of the Soviet-era industrial base has led to an increasing number of accidents.

In the absence of real changes, some of Medvedev's reforms have drawn criticism and, sometimes, open mockery.

His move to rename the Russian police force was ridiculed by many who said that the name change did nothing to end police abuses and rampant corruption in the ranks.

Putin has sought recently to distance himself from Medvedev and didn't mention his name a single time during a 4 1/2 hour call-in TV show last week. When asked about the controversial police reform, Putin said only that he had nothing to do with it.

Facing a question about another unpopular move by Medvedev, who this year permanently switched the nation to summer time, delaying dawn by an hour during the long dark winter, Putin promised with a sly smile to have another look at the issue.