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Medvedev Gets ‘Last Chance’ to Escape Putin’s Growing Shadow

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Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev attends the opening plenary session of the Group of Eight summit in Huntsville, Ontario. Photographer: Norm Betts/Bloomberg

Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- President Dmitry Medvedev gets an opportunity today to lay out his vision for remaking Russia, after a summer in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dominated TV screens amid preparations for the 2012 presidential election.

Medvedev will address 500 politicians, business leaders and Russia analysts at the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum, an annual gathering the 44-year-old president started last year to reach out to supporters at home and abroad.

“This is Medvedev’s last chance to say that he’s back, that his modernization policy takes precedence and that he’s still the president,” said Alexander Rahr, a Russia specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations, who is attending the event. “This is a home game, he has to fire up his own team. Next year it will be too late.”

Medvedev, who Putin picked as his successor after reaching the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms in 2008, is struggling to step out of Putin’s shadow by pushing a Russian “Silicon Valley,” attacking corruption and building ties to U.S. President Barack Obama. Neither Putin, 57, nor Medvedev has stated their plans for 2012, fueling speculation of behind-the-scenes competition.

The meeting in Yaroslavl, 250 kilometers (160 miles) north of Moscow, gives Medvedev a platform to present the results of his modernization plan, which he laid out a year ago. Natalya Timakova, Medvedev’s spokeswoman, declined to comment on the contents of his speech.

‘Signals Are Clear’

During his own meeting with international Russia experts this week, Putin said it was too early to determine whether he or Medvedev would run in 2012. The premier vowed that neither would do anything that violates the constitution, which doesn’t prohibit three non-consecutive terms.

“The signals are clear,” said Rahr, who also attended the meeting with Putin. “Putin talked about foreign affairs and hardly mentioned Medvedev. He spoke as if he were the boss and wanted to be understood that way by the world.”

Putin has filled Russian TV screens in recent months, sitting in the cockpit of a firefighting plane, taking a skin sample from a gray whale and driving a canary yellow Lada for 2,000 kilometers along a desolate highway on the Chinese border.

“Putin is playing with the electorate -- and with Medvedev,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia’s ruling classes. “By September next year it will all be clear. Until then we’ll be spectators in a theater.”

The prime minister likes to “shuffle and reshuffle the cards,” keeping the rest of the country guessing, said Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin’s United Russia party. He announced his successor in December 2007 after months of media speculation on whether Medvedev or former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov would get his endorsement.

U.S., Europe Backing

The U.S. and Europe have embraced Medvedev’s plans, with Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Executive Officer John Chambers and Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs hosting him in California before a meeting with Obama in June. The European Union joined Medvedev’s “partnership for modernization” on June 1.

“We’re not playing one side of the tandem,” Michael McFaul, Obama’s adviser for Russia, said yesterday during an interview in Yaroslavl. “We don’t consider what we’re doing as playing that game at all. That’s internal politics here that’s not part of our foreign policy.”

When Putin talked about modernization with international experts this week, he stressed stability over a “great leap forward,” said Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at New York-based risk consultant Eurasia Group who was at the meeting. Putin never mentioned Skolkovo, the Moscow suburb Medvedev plans to turn into Russia’s technology hub, according to Kupchan.

“I didn’t see a nuanced appreciation of the importance of institutions compared to strong government rule,” Kupchan said.

Political observers may be putting too much emphasis on whether Putin or Medvedev will run in 2012, instead of looking where the real power lies, Rahr said. Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev served as general secretaries of the Communist Party while allowing others to hold nominally higher posts in government.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lucian Kim in Yaroslavl at lkim3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Willy Morris at wmorris@bloomberg.net

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