MOSCOW — President Dmitry A. Medvedev spent last Friday trying to persuade the grandees of United Russia that he is a conservative who can lead the party to victory. But many looked at him and saw Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s liberal sidekick, who emboldened the opposition and supported the West in Libya.
Medvedev did not fare any better on Saturday, when he met with the prominent liberals who have served as his human rights advisers. They made no effort to hide their disappointment in his presidency, saying an opportunity to change Russia had been allowed to slip away.
Medvedev, who will step down from the presidency next week, has said he hopes to play a role in Russian politics for a long time; still just 46, he hints that he may run for president again in 2018, when Putin’s third term ends. Right now, though, he is fighting for political relevance, after spending an entire presidential term in Putin’s shadow.
The announcement in September that Putin would return as president dealt a heavy blow to the younger man’s profile, suggesting that he meekly surrendered a position he wanted. He smelled of weakness — a dangerous thing in a system that venerates strength. The problem is an immediate one now, as he prepares to take the post of prime minister and the chairmanship of United Russia.
“Putin paid a bit of a price for humiliating him in that way,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He is really deeply, deeply damaged goods as a result of this very, very badly bungled switch. If he is supposed to be effective, he needs a makeover. He needs a reinvigoration. He needs a demonstration that he is not a joke.”
He got a taste of the challenges ahead as soon as the job-swap was announced. The first to react was Finance Minister Alexei L. Kudrin, a Kremlin heavyweight and a Putin loyalist, who said he would leave government rather than report to Medvedev as prime minister. Medvedev responded with the kind of public dressing-down that sends a message of raw dominance, demanding that Kudrin resign on the spot and daring other dissenters to follow him.
The president’s prestige was dwindling anyway. News outlets that for years had featured Medvedev more prominently than Putin stopped covering his activities intensively. During the first three months of this year his name was mentioned one-third as often as Putin’s, according to Medialogia, a Moscow consulting firm. Medvedev’s approval rating fell to 27 points below Putin’s last month, after staying within 10 points for most of his presidency, according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Center.