Critics say President Putin will keep pulling the strings after Russia elects a new president on Sunday, March 2. But some German experts believe that Putin's self-chosen successor will not simply act as a marionette.
Dmitry Medvedev, 42, represents a new generation of Russian leaders
Russians voted on Sunday, March 2, in presidential elections seen by critics as a Kremlin-orchestrated plan to divide power between President Vladimir Putin and his favored successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
With 70 percent of Russians telling pollsters they intend to vote for Medvedev, no one will be surprised when Putin's self-chosen successor, wins the presidential election.
"I'm in a good mood," Medvedev said as he cast his ballot in Moscow, where rain and wet snow sprinkled the streets. "Spring is here. The season has changed."
The extremely popular president has positioned himself behind his 42-year-old protege, granting Medvedev the government's full backing and appearing with him on campaign posters.
Could Medvedev represent a new era of Russian politics?
With the two Russians casting a united front before the election at home, politicians in the Europe are wondering if the change in the Kremlin will lead to improved ties with Moscow.
Lacking Putin's fierce countenance and sharp tongue, Medvedev has been ironically called a "Putin-lite." But, "despite his gentle, quiet personality, he's made of steel," said Russian NATO delegate Dmitry Rogosin, as reported by the AFP news agency.
That might be bad news for European leaders as Russian-European relations under Putin have been less than smooth over his eight years as president.
Disputes arose over energy supply, particularly when Russia cut off gas to Ukraine in 2005, then ties cooled after the unexplained poisoning death of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and Russia's refusal to support Kosovar independence created tension in UN-sponsored negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade and continues to divide the UN Security Council.
A post-communist generation
It remains to be seen just how much power Putin will hang on to
Russia expert Thomas Kunze from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin said Medvedev would demonstrate continuity with his predecessor, but added that Medvedev also represents a new era of Russian politicians.
"He was born in 1965 and belongs to an entirely different generation than all Russian leaders before him," said Kunze. Indeed, Medvedev was in his mid-20s and at the beginning of his career when the USSR dissolved in 1991.
"Medvedev will be an independent and modern president," added Kunze, contradicting speculation in the Western media that the former law professor would simply act as a marionette for Putin, who said he would serve as prime minister. "I think [Medvedev] is much more aligned with Europe."
Lip service to liberal market values
Medvedev gained favor abroad when he cast himself as a market liberal at last year's World Economic Forum in Davos. He has supported the fight against corruption and said he doesn't think state-run firms necessarily function better than private ones -- as chairman of energy giant Gazprom he was involved in its process of renationalization.
He has also said he wants to strengthen investment and protect private property. Those are promises Kunze said he thinks can be taken seriously.
Medvedev's popularity has benefited from the economic boom experienced under Putin -- a boom which is likely to continue.
"Despite certain political differences between Russia and the West, the investment climate is better than ever," Reiner Hartmann, chairman of the Association of European Businesses in Russia, told the DPA news agency.
Gas: Russia and Europe are both troubled by their co-dependence
Both he and Kunze said they expected Russia to join the World Trade Organization this year, a significant step toward developing its global economic ties.
Rich in oil and gas resources, Russia recognizes its dependence on Western Europe as a vital energy market -- and the Gazprom chairman certainly does as well, especially s the country currently lacks the pipelines necessary to build up new markets elsewhere.
Europe is also reliant on Russian gas, but Kunze said both sides are doing their best to mitigate their mutual dependency by building additional pipelines and investing in renewable energies. Currently about 40 percent of European Union gas imports come from Russia.
Strong NATO ties under the surface
As in matters of energy and economics, Russia and the West are dependent on each other in security issues as well.
"Russia is interested in sustainable relations with NATO and the EU, just as the West cannot do without Russia's support in overcoming common dangers," wrote NATO Defense College research director Karl-Heinz Kamp in the March edition of Internationale Politik.
Although Russia's opposition to a planned US missile defense system in central Europe and its withdrawal from the Conventional Forces Treaty have created tensions in Moscow's relations with western capitals, its cooperation with NATO in sensitive areas like military reform and counter-terrorism has been stronger than many think, Kamp said.
He cited Russia's participation in the NATO-led Mediterranean counter-terrorism operation "Active Endeavour" in 2006 as an example of that cooperation. Nevertheless, Kamp also said Putin's successor would continue down a strong-willed path, as far as international relations are concerned.
"Since the leadership in Moscow can hardly be expected to act less loudly and self-confidently on the international stage in the near future, NATO will have to rationally distinguish between rhetoric and reality, between legitimate Russian security interests and political argumentation," Kamp said.
Putin's future remains unclear
Some wonder whether that loud and self-confident voice won't be coming from a future Prime Minister Putin. Kunze, however, said he doesn't think Putin will stay in politics for much longer.
"If he had wanted to stay in power he could have changed the constitution to allow for a third presidential term or he could have given more powers to the prime minister" before taking on that role, explained the Russia expert.
Peter the Great ruled together with half-brother Ivan and even had a specially built double throne, but Medvedev and Putin are likely to take a different approach