Stepping out from Putin's shadow

The Russian president's recent about-turn in rhetoric comes after pre-Georgian polls showed he lacked 'real power'.

President Dmitry Medvedev, right, is seen during a medal awarding ceremony for Russian troops involved in the Georgia conflict in the city of Vladikavkaz, Russia, Monday, Aug. 18, 2008. Medvedev awarded medals Monday to servicemen involved in the conflict in Georgia, calling it a peacemaking operation that will be remembered as one of the "glorious deeds" of the Russian military. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze) *** Local Caption ***  MOSB122_Russia_Georgia_.jpg
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MOSCOW // During his eight years in office, the coarse colloquialisms and bawdy humour of Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president, became a prominent feature of his public appearances. Among other things, Mr Putin, now Russia's powerful prime minister, promised to "waste" terrorists "even in the outhouse". Now, following Russia's bloody conflict with neighbouring Georgia over the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia, Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin's hand-picked successor, appears to be adopting the former president's rough language in what political analysts call an attempt to bolster his image as the man in charge of Russia.

Mr Medvedev - whose image is that of a refined, well-mannered man of relatively progressive persuasions - began talking tough after Mr Putin stole much of the spotlight during the first days of the war with Georgia by meeting foreign leaders at the Beijing Olympics and making a dashing arrival to North Ossetia, on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains, after the fighting began. At a joint press conference last week with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who brokered the six-point peace plan between the warring countries, Mr Medvedev displayed new-found bluster, accusing Georgia of carrying out "bloody adventures" and describing the Georgian leadership as "lunatics" and "bastards".

In a press conference on Friday with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Mr Medvedev said peace needed to be restored to ensure that "no one gets any more idiotic ideas into their heads". The turnabout in Mr Medvedev's rhetorical style seem to have come as a response to the impression that it was Mr Putin calling the shots in the beginning of the armed conflict, said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

"In the beginning he did not project the image of the decision-maker," Ms Lipman said of the Russian president. "But then Medvedev reappeared, travelling around the country, giving lots of speeches and clearly looking presidential." The aggressive language helped Mr Medvedev "send a message that he is confident and knows what he's doing", Ms Lipman said. Opinion polls before the violence in South Ossetia showed Mr Medvedev with a credibility problem.

When asked by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, "who holds the real power" in Russia, 36 per cent of respondents said it was Mr Putin compared with nine per cent for Mr Medvedev. Forty-seven per cent said they shared power equally, according to the poll, which queried 1,600 Russians nationwide from July 18 to July 22. It had a margin of error of three per cent. Irina Petrovskaya, a prominent Russian television critic, said news reports on state-run channels clearly showed that Mr Putin was in charge at the beginning of the crisis. "Medvedev assumed the role of the interpreter of events, while Putin was the dashing leader of the country, flying to hot spots to fix everything," Ms Petrovskaya said.

Mr Medvedev's sudden decision to coarsen his public speaking seemed affected given his general staid and scholarly demeanour, Ms Petrovskaya said. Mr Putin could pull it off because he grew up in a family of workers and hanging out with a rough crowd in Leningrad courtyards, she said. "But for someone like Medvedev, who grew up in a family of intellectuals, this style just does not fit," Ms Petrovskaya said.

Mr Medvedev's political style has become "more defined, more precise and more hard-nosed", said, Dmitry Orlov, an analyst with the Agency of Political Information. "Opinion polls show that this is the leadership style that Russians prefer." Indeed, it appears many Russians wanted more decisive action from Mr Medvedev. According to a survey made public on Monday by state pollster VTsIOM, 23 per cent of respondents said Mr Medvedev should have acted tougher in dealing with Georgia. Thirty-seven per cent said he had dealt with the situation adequately.

The poll, conducted from Aug 10 to Aug 13, questioned 1,600 people across Russia and had a margin of error of less than 3.4 per cent. Political analysts differ on whether Mr Medvedev came away from the South Ossetia violence - his first major crisis since taking office - as a stronger president. "The situation clearly showed that Putin is still running the show," said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank. "It was enough to watch television and see Putin telling Medvedev to send investigators to South Ossetia to gather evidence of war crimes by Georgian forces, and Medvedev quickly agreeing."

"There is a mutual agreement that the president will be accorded his proper respect, but this is all a show," Mr Pribylovsky said. Yet Mr Medvedev undoubtedly strengthened his authority in his handling of the situation, Mr Orlov said. "On the other hand, the political system created by Putin and Medvedev - a tandem running the country - was also strengthened," he said. Mr Putin is not dictating Mr Medvedev's actions, but instead has "passed the reins" of antipathy towards the West to his predecessor, who merely takes his cues from the prime minister, said Sergei Dorenko, a talk show host with the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station.

"Putin allows Medvedev to be tough," Mr Dorenko said. @Email:cschreck@thenational.ae