PENZA, RussiaÂ – Who looks like President Vladimir Putin, speaks and moves like Putin — but is not the man himself?
Step forward Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s chosen successor for the top Kremlin job.
The 42-year-old Medvedev has built his campaign on a pledge to continue his mentor’s popular policies. But, on the campaign trail for Russia’s March presidential election, there is no mistaking who is boss.
When the two visited the snowy city of Penza, 400 miles east of Moscow, last week to open a new hospital, Medvedev deferred to Putin at every turn.
Putin told local officials they needed to find a better way of purchasing equipment and added: “I want the ministers and, perhaps, you, Dmitry Anatolyevich, to get involved.”
Medvedev, who was catching Putin’s every word, obediently started making notes.
Despite differences of background, Medvedev, a lawyer, copies many of the habits of his boss, a 55-year-old former KGB spy.
That goes for how he lays his hands on the table or how he stresses key words in speeches.
In Penza, he took fast and abrupt steps similar to those of black belt judo expert Putin.
Neither man is tall. Medvedev, whose height is several centimeters shorter than Putin’s 170 cm (about 5 feet 7 inches), may have to learn from his boss how to project himself at public events.
He still lacks the renowned self-control of the poker-faced Putin and bursts of emotion can often be seen in his face.
In Bulgaria, where Putin took him two weeks ago, Medvedev blushed when dozens of cameras turned on him after he approached Putin to whisper something in his ear.
After nearly eight years in office Putin is very comfortable addressing large gatherings but Medvedev rarely does so. He prefers smaller meetings with professionals or carefully crafted public events where little unexpected will crop up.
This may change with time. In 2000, Putin was not the balanced and controlled leader he has become and often lost his temper when asked sensitive questions about his war on rebels in the troubled Muslim region of Chechnya.
WALKING THIN LINE
In any case, Medvedev’s public image does not seem to matter too much for the election. Opinion polls suggest that more than half of Russians were ready last year to vote for whoever Putin endorses and Medvedev’s ratings already top 60 percent.
Analysts say that Medvedev’s top priority is to make Putin happy rather than win over voters. The current president has made clear he intends to keep political influence by becoming prime minister after he leaves the Kremlin.
So Medvedev has to walk a thin line between being a loyal lieutenant to his boss and showing himself a capable, potential leader of a country of 140 million people.
The image of a dull technocrat is ideal for this.
As opposed to other close Putin allies mooted as possible successors Medvedev has never come out with his own political ideas or made any notable pronouncements.
Medvedev’s legal training means he is a competent speaker and he shows occasional flashes of humor. When once asked by a teenager about Olbanian, a slang form of Russian used in Internet chat, he joked that it should be taught in schools because it is so popular. Putin ducked a similar question.
But there are virtually no jokes about Medvedev on the Internet — a sure sign of popularity in Russia — compared to hundreds about Putin.
Most of his public statements are either reiterations of Putin’s wisdom or technical comments on how best to implement them. In his nomination speech, he stuck rigidly to “Putin’s plan” as his guideline.
His heavily choreographed campaign so far has lacked the personal touch shown by Putin. The latter turned up in the middle of the millennium celebration night in Chechnya to hand out knives to soldiers, flew supersonic jets and drove his security guards crazy by traveling on a nuclear submarine.
On the other hand, Medvedev’s regional trips have been conducted with a seriousness designed to convey the image of a leader who is already functioning and has only to be elected.
“Dmitry Anatolyevich is not making campaign trips, he is working”, his spokeswoman Zhanna Odintsova has said of his trips.