MOSCOW (Reuters) – Next week a lawyer with little foreign policy experience will become Russian president and lead a country with a nuclear arsenal, a UN veto and volatile relations with its neighbors and an energy-dependent West.
The consensus among diplomats and analysts is that Dmitry Medvedev, who will be sworn in on May 7, will stick broadly to the assertive policies of his predecessor Vladimir Putin that have proved popular at home and alarmed the West.
Despite his years working closely with Putin, little is known about the real Medvedev when it comes to international relations. He projects a pro-Western style but analysts note he has yet to justify that image in practice.
Behind closed doors, Medvedev, 42, showed a grasp of what lies ahead, said Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, one of the few foreign leaders to have met Medvedev at length since he became president-elect.
“He is intelligent, has an excellent grip on the issues and has a good sense of humor,” Juncker, in written comments supplied to Reuters, said of his Kremlin meeting last month.
Since 2000, Putin has delivered anti-Western rhetoric and demanded respect for Moscow, policies that are wildly popular with a public seeking a halt in the slide of the country’s authority after the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991.
With Putin due to become prime minister, there are many skeptics who wonder if Medvedev will make his own mark, or mimic his master’s voice.
“I’m pessimistic. I don’t like that the Russian media and the Kremlin are trying to portray Medvedev as a modern western guy, because I don’t see that yet,” Nikolai Zlobin of the World Security Institute in Washington told Reuters.
Russia will only show a friendlier face to foreign investors and neighbors when it faces an economic downturn and until then it will be cushioned by buoyant energy revenues, he said.
The challenges facing Medvedev include U.S. missile defense proposals, NATO enlargement, separatist pressures, energy rows and avoiding open conflict with neighbors like Georgia — all while not appearing weak to his home audience.
Juncker, who heard Medvedev elaborate on his ideas in private, does not anticipate any break with current policies but says Medvedev wants to place the relationship with Europe on a fresh footing.
“He represents renewal within continuity,” Juncker said.
“Like President Putin, he considers Russia to be part of Europe and wants Russia and the EU to work together to address the issues that our continent faces, be they economic, security-related or otherwise.”
Dmitry Danilov of the Russian Academy of Science’s Europe Institute, said Medvedev was likely to stick to the foreign policy direction laid out by his predecessor and focus his attentions on domestic matters where he feels more comfortable.
“In the first few months Medvedev will not be making substantial changes because his main experience is handling internal policies,” said Danilov.
One early initiative might be an attempt to improve ties with Britain, he said. Relations soured after the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London and the political row over a suspected Russian role in the murder.
The European Commission’s ambassador to Moscow, Marc Franco, told Reuters he expects a change of emphasis with Medvedev’s accession, but not more.
“If you listen to what he has said in public and you listen to what he has said in private to European politicians, the kind of liberal accents are very clear,” said Franco.
Medvedev has announced he will travel to ex-Soviet Kazakhstan and then China on his first foreign visits after his inauguration. That is a significant gesture, said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs.
“Maybe after 5 or 7 years Russia will face an important question – how to keep political parity with China. Economically, it’s quite clear, we’re far behind.”
Lyukanov does not anticipate substantial change beyond positive atmospherics towards the United States and Europe, which Putin has threatened to retarget with nuclear missiles if Washington’s planned missile defense scheme goes ahead.
“Given Putin’s polices are so popular, any politician, in any country, would be crazy to change,” said Lyukanov.