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After the election, Mother Russia, who's your daddy?

As much as Stalin's looming gothic towers, advertising has become the architectural style of Moscow.

Whole city blocks are concealed behind gleaming billboards touting Sony flat screens and Rolex watches, cell phones and BMWs. Neon lit or simply leviathan, the ads trumpet the material allures of an economy growing at 7 percent a year.

For a period of weeks recently, some of these monumental placards advanced the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev for president of Russia. The posters didn't actually name Medvedev or even the position he was seeking. The photo of two casually stylish men walking side by side under the slogan "Together we will win" and the date of the March 2 election said enough.

The man on the left, chatting to his companion, was Vladimir Putin, the wildly popular current occupant of the position, who had put the swagger back in the national step. The other man, a shoulder behind and smiling at the camera, was Medvedev, Putin's handpicked successor.

Without a single image from a rival campaign visible anywhere to dilute its impact, the poster operated above the level of political competition — the kind of change versus experience argument American voters are debating. Medvedev faced three opponents in the election, but they were paper adversaries, largely ignored by state-run television and left on the electoral margins.

In reality, the heroically sized image was as much about Putin as it was about the man who will on May 7 assume nominal control of the Kremlin. For voters still bruised by the memory of Russia's slam dance with democracy and capitalism in the 1990s, the image of Putin leading his replacement presented a reminder of eight years of sustained prosperity and a promise of more to come.

Western observers have brooded at length over whether the 42-year-old civil law expert will emulate Putin's chest-thumping political style, his KGB-ingrained distaste for dissent, his ravenous appetite for executive power. If Medvedev inherits these traits, the thinking goes, dangerous confrontations loom on the world stage.

Those concerns don't appear very high on the average Russian's list of concerns. With unfettered travel and Internet access, they feel plenty free. Stability is what they crave. Seen this way, Medvedev is the newest model to roll out of the Putin factory. Let others drone about sham democracy. Just give us a nice car that runs well.

Reading profiles of Medvedev (med-VYEH-def), one can feel the authors straining to find biographical details that would vouch that he supports liberal ideals the West cherishes.

He grew up in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), routinely described as Russia's most liberal, Western-leaning city. His parents were university professors, though this means one thing in the United States and something else when appointments are government approved.

He was a striver, impatient to succeed, say his teachers at School No. 305 in Kupchino, a dreary district of apartment blocks. But he had refinement that his "working class" schoolmates lacked; Putin chased rats in the stairwell of his cold-water building; Medvedev, younger by 13 years, pursued blacklisted albums by bands such as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.

At Leningrad State University where he studied law and later lectured, his colleagues remember him as a "brilliant" and ground-breaking legal mind. He authored a widely used civil law text, codifying principles of property ownership and commerce unknown in the Soviet era.

"Medvedev is a true liberal. His views are based on 100 percent acceptance of private property and he's going to do everything to defend it," said Marina J. Lavrikova, associate professor of law and a classmate of Medvedev.

Unlike Putin, formed in the crucible of the Cold War, Medvedev came of age as Mikhail Gorbachev was dismantling the communist system. In 1989, he hitched himself to the career of Anatoly Sobchak, his former law professor who became Leningrad's first elected mayor.

It was in Sobchak's office that Medvedev met Putin, whose KGB career in East Germany had ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. He had returned home where he landed a job as Sobchak's deputy mayor, selling the city's property. He hired Medvedev, the civil law expert, to help him with the deals.

While Medvedev served as corporate counsel for one of the country's largest paper companies, Putin moved to Moscow where he became a fixture in Boris Yeltsin's tumultuous administration.

Putin brought Medvedev to Moscow in 1999 upon becoming prime minister. Medvedev ran Putin's 2000 presidential campaign.

Medvedev was Putin's chief of staff as Putin jailed billionaire tycoons and re-established state control of their companies. This served the purpose of punishing financial misdeeds and stifling the funding source for critical news outlets, which Putin later put under state ownership.

Putin installed Medvedev as chairman of Gazprom, the state gas monopoly, which Medvedev put in financial order. Putin has used the company as leverage in disputes with fractious gas-importing neighbors like Ukraine.

And Putin watched as Russia's one-legged economy galloped ahead on the skyrocketing price of oil. The country's natural resources have masked serious problems with the Russian economy: stubbornly two-digit inflation, mortgage rates of 12 percent, eroding pensions, stagnant wages, endemic corruption from the traffic cop to the top tiers of government ministries, and a work force hobbled by declining population.

Medvedev's star ascended anyway. In 2005, Putin named him first deputy prime minister and gave him millions of rubles to dole out on national projects such as roads, housing and health care. The job gave Medvedev a public stage — and limitless TV coverage — to define himself as an effective manager.

But the results belied the sales job, says Nikolay Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, who says the new housing initiative has been marred by a limited number of units and cement shortages.

"The immediate effect was an increase in prices," Petrov said. In the end, "there were no signs that he learned a lot."

"Freedom is better than lack of freedom — this principle should be at the core of our politics," Medvedev said in a speech at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum two weeks before the election. "I mean freedom in all its manifestations — personal freedom, economic freedom and, finally, freedom of expression."

Western observers cheered. But his rhetoric didn't square with the Potemkin election.

The opposition had been culled of candidates considered most threatening to Putin's dominant United Russia party. The three that were left staged a series of listless photo ops seemingly calculated to draw as little useful attention as possible.

Five days before the election, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the famously hotheaded ultranationalist, summoned the media to the kitchen of his economic adviser's restaurant where he prepared a "national dish" — nothing more exotic than lamb chops, sauteed vegetables and fried potatoes. He pontificated on portion control, the benefits of vegetarianism, his fear that Russians will get fat like Americans, but failed to put forth a plan to boost Russian male life expectancy above 59 years.

Not surprisingly, this got much less coverage than when he punched an opponent's aide during a television debate. The aide had called Zhirinovsky a "Kremlin puppet," which is true but ironic; the other candidate had qualified for the ballot thanks to Kremlin support.

Gennady Zyuganov, the 63-year-old leader of the Communist Party, appeared one afternoon at the Writers' Union, a rundown 19th century mansion that Tolstoy used for scenes in War and Peace. Zyuganov had come to hand out service medals to a dozen or so aging artists, and to lament with them the passing of the grand Soviet era when the people suffered, but at least everyone suffered equally.

As he waited for Zyuganov to speak, an older man in a turtleneck and blazer picked up a small plastic sword, speared a slice of complimentary fruit and quoted the poet Mayakovsky: "Eat your pineapples, chew on your pheasants, you bourgeois. Your last day is coming." This is perhaps wishful thinking in a city where a new middle class furiously funnels its disposable income into shopping malls that didn't exist 10 years ago.

In the elections of 1996, as Russia verged on economic meltdown and the terms free market and democracy drew jeers from a shattered populace, Zyuganov's nostalgia for a financial safety net captured 36 percent of the vote. He gets half that now.

Election Day was wet and cold, the kind of weather that typically keeps voters home, especially in an election so lacking real competition. But government officials weren't taking chances with the turnout.

Prompted by the government, cell phone companies sent text messages to every subscriber in the country (an estimated 9-million Muscovites alone have cell phones). "Vote March 2. Your country needs you." Other techniques were less subtle. Business owners, under pressure from party officials, encouraged employees to cast absentee ballots at work rather than their normal polling place. Some voters were told to take cell phone pictures of completed ballots for later verification.

Officials weren't ungrateful. First-time voters received free hats. Just about every polling station boasted a small market (a Soviet tradition) where you could buy inexpensive books, perfume and table linens, and a cafe for pensioners whose checks don't go very far these days. Still, acts of futile protest were easy to find.

That night, Putin and Medvedev strode across Red Square and climbed on stage in the middle of a rock concert. It was Putin's name the crowd chanted.

The morning after the election, cold rain was lashing down on the souvenir kiosks along Arbat Street. The inventory is more or less uniform: imitation Soviet military insignia, mass-produced folk crafts, faux religious icons and the famous nesting dolls (matryushka) that have been updated with the faces of famous politicians and sports figures.

There were plenty of dolls with Putin's face, but not a single one of Medvedev alone. If this were a true market economy, the stands would have groaned under the weight of the new Medvedev model.

But the only ones to be found showed Putin and Medvedev together, a reflection not of market demand, but political reality. For now "President of Russia" looks like a two-person job.

Since the election, leaders in the West have wondered openly about whom they will be dealing with on foreign policy issues.

Maybe both. Petrov, the scholar, sees early evidence of a good cop/bad cop dynamic.

"This is the game they have already begun to play," he says.

But Medvedev has no foreign policy experience, which means Putin will likely continue to denounce threats from the West — missile systems on the border and NATO aggrandizement.

Don't read too much into that, cautions Andrew Kuchins. director of Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This whole business about a new Cold War is bull----."

Russia's pressing concerns, he says, are not dissimilar to our own: radical Islam (which operates inside Russian borders), the threat of a nuclear Iran and China's immense might.

Come November, Russians will be asking the same questions about the United States. They know that a White House occupied by a 71-year-old Republican who has avowed the use of force to promote democracy will present a very different diplomatic partner than one occupied by one or the other Democrat, both of whom think America needs to present a less threatening international face.

Medvedev says he wants to reform the judiciary, weed out corruption and abolish the country's "legal nihilism." But if the standard by which the West insists on judging Russia is whether it can run a free and fair election or permit the existence of a true opposition, then it is likely to be disappointed for some time to come.

Less than 24 hours after Putin asked the crowd in Red Square to put the campaign behind them and work to help "Mother Russia," several hundred riot police in Moscow massed to block a demonstration by a coalition of opposition groups known as "Other Russia."

The group boasts a leader with worldwide recognition (Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion), but far less support inside Russia. Authorities had denied a permit to march, saying disingenuously they didn't want to create a traffic problem.

For about an hour, the police intermittently clubbed and dragged away the 20 or so protesters who managed to sneak into the crowded square while a hundred or more reporters recorded every shout of "Fascisti" and every baton blow.

On May 9, two days after Medvedev is sworn in as president, Russia will hold its annual Victory Day celebration, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War II. For the first time since 1990, the parade through Red Square will feature tanks and nuclear missiles.

You could call it an ad for Russian democracy.

Bill Duryea is the national editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at bduryea@sptimes.com.

After the election, Mother Russia, who's your daddy? 03/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 1:32pm]
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