BERLIN, March 5 (UPI) -- European officials hope that Russia's future President Dmitry Medvedev will break the ice in relations with the West.
Medvedev won more than 70 percent in Sunday's presidential election, a landslide victory that came as no surprise.
While international observers voiced criticism, saying the vote was not up to democratic standards, even a flawless election would not have changed the result significantly.
Granted, the democratic opposition was threatened and didn't have equal access to the press, but its main figures, including Boris Nemzov and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, have no major backing in the public anyway. Furthermore, the democratic camp in Russia is deeply divided, and instead of uniting against the civil rights backlash by the Kremlin, they have only managed to further diminish their already limited influence through personal quarrels.
Of course 42-year-old Medvedev rose to power on the back of President Vladimir Putin's overwhelming popularity, which he amassed thanks to Russia's economic and political comeback during recent years.
Putin in May, after Medvedev's inauguration as president, will become prime minister, a post politically inferior to that of the president. Yet observers fear Putin is unwilling to give up his power, thus controlling Medvedev from behind the scenes.
But Medvedev, who beginning in 1990 worked for Putin in his mayor's office in St. Petersburg and in 1999 followed him to the Kremlin when Putin became prime minister and later president, should not be underestimated, experts say.
"He is not a puppet of Mr. Putin," Vladimir Rasuvajev, the general director of the Center for Economic and Political Studies, a Moscow-based think tank, said Monday in Berlin at a talk on Medvedev's victory. "Medvedev will continue the foreign policy by Mr. Putin, but at the same time, the Russian interior policy will become more liberal."
Klaus Mangold, the head of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations who has had close relations with Medvedev for the past 13 years, said he knows Russia's future president as an "extraordinarily competent man, who is very determined and driven by a will to bring about change."
For business people like Mangold, that change lies firstly in the urgent need to modernize Russia's economy, which to this day relies too heavily on oil and gas. Mangold hopes that Russia will swiftly seek WTO membership, revive the Russia-EU cooperation program currently put on hold, and support investments and innovation.
For political experts such as Alexander Rahr, the chief Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Berlin-based think tank that organized the talk, change lies mainly in smoothing the troubled relations between Moscow and European governments.
That Medvedev has no ties to the military or intelligence circles (Putin's career began as a Soviet spy in former communist East Germany, and observers say the Russian FSB intelligence service to this day controls the Kremlin) should be taken as an opportunity. And there are other signs that Medvedev is more than a mere Putin puppet.
"Medvedev didn't win the election by talking tough on Chechnya, like Putin did in 2000, but he won by stressing soft social issues like social security, environment and sustainability," Rahr said, adding that the West should take these notes seriously and engage in a renewed dialog with Medvedev.
Germany seems to take this piece of advice especially seriously: It surfaced Tuesday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Moscow over the weekend and become the first foreign leader to meet with Medvedev after his election victory.
The situation for Washington is a bit more difficult: It is unlikely that Medvedev will warm up to U.S. President George W. Bush; Washington has angered Moscow with its missile defense system planned for Eastern Europe, which Russia sees as yet another sign of NATO's eastward expansion.
Yet just like a new generation is pinned to enter the Kremlin, a breath of fresh air will wave through the White House in 2009. Rahr said Medvedev with his career fits more into the modern world than Putin does, much like another presidential hopeful in the United States.
"When a U.S. President Barack Obama meets with a Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, then I am optimistic Cold War will not play a role anymore," he said.
Then again, one will have to wait a few months to see if Medvedev is able to emancipate himself from his all-too-powerful mentor.