The presidential election in Russia last weekend was one of the most predictable polls anywhere in recent times, as Vladimir Putin handed over the baton to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. This raises several questions about the Russian presidency. Will Mr Medvedev, as widely expected, turn out to be Mr Putin’s drone? Will he be able to carry out his poll pledges of establishing more freedoms and laws in Russia? His speeches have been so tightly scripted to reflect continuity of the Putin era, that it is difficult to see how the furniture in the Kremlin is going to be rearranged. Or, indeed, in the premier’s office, where Mr Putin is likely to move into, having made it clear that he intends to remain active as Mr Medvedev’s Prime Minister.
Under Mr Putin, the presidency has become unassailable. This makes it easier for Mr Medvedev to sail on the air of confidence brought about by Russia’s energy-driven economy which is growing fast. (Never mind if this has come at the expense of democratic freedoms.) Another important question concerns the extent to which Mr Medvedev will be able to preside over foreign policy, as dictated by the Russian constitution, without looking over his shoulder at every turn. If he wants the world to take him seriously, he has to strike out on his own roadmap. Yet, he can ill-afford to make major changes in Mr Putin’s strong-arm policy that put a resurgent Russia on the global stage.
Moscow faces tough challenges in its own backyard — from former Soviet republics like Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, and the Ukraine. After Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, for instance, Moscow seems keen on persuading separatists in Georgia to declare their independence. This makes it unlikely that Mr Medvedev’s market-friendly disposition may herald a less confrontational approach vis-à-vis the west. On the contrary, chances are that Washington and Moscow will continue to thrust and parry over everything from the US plan to deploy parts of a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, to Russia’s weapons sales to Iran, Syria and Venezuela.