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Russia's less-than-sure thing

There's no surprise in Russia's newly elected president – or is there?

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More swimming pools. That, at least, is one change Russians might expect from their incoming president. Dmitri Medvedev, who kicks up waves twice a day, says the country lacks enough pools. But otherwise, Russians can expect mainly continuity: more autocratic Putinism, more oil-driven prosperity, more assertive foreign policy.

That, anyway, is the message of Mr. Medvedev's March 2 "victory," which itself was a foregone conclusion. Outgoing President Vladimir Putin, who will slide over to become prime minister, handpicked this loyal protégé as his successor. The pair assures citizens – and the wary West – that together they'll keep Russia on course.

But beneath such certainty lies a certain uncertainty – about political power-sharing, about Russia's economic future, and even about how it will project strength, especially toward Europe.

For starters, no one knows whether Medvedev, who is assumed to be Putin's lap dog, will eventually leap to the ground and discover his own legs.

Now, Putin controls the real levers of power. He has the loyalty of Russia's security forces, its parliament, and the media. A move by Medvedev to strike out on his own would cause a backlash from the elite. Besides, he's walked lockstep with friend Putin for years. Why would he question a course that's brought Russia prosperity and international respect?

And yet. And yet. Shared leadership is something new for Russia. Historically, a new Kremlin boss makes borscht of the man who put him there. And Medvedev has hinted at more meaningful changes than swimming pools. He has called for "freedom in all its forms – personal freedom, economic freedom and, in the end, the freedom of self-expression."


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