Russia's president talked democracy Friday at an annual gathering of intellectuals and political leaders. But more than half-way through his four-year term in office, some of those in attendance at the gathering say President Dmitry Medvedev's talk about democracy has made that a topic of national debate, but that has not been able to implement concrete change.
While an autumn sun lit freshly painted white walls of this 1,000-year-old city, a long shadow was cast over the gathering by Russia's prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin.
Several foreign visitors here had a dinner meeting with Mr. Putin under the auspices of the Valdai Discussion Club, a group of foreign intellectuals. They came away with the impression that Mr. Medvedev's time to establish an independent political profile is running out, with presidential elections 18 months away.
Alexander Rahr, Russia director for the German Council for Foreign Relations, said of the group dinner with Mr. Putin: "After seeing and speaking to [Mr.] Putin during the meeting of the Valdai Club, I think each of the members of the Valdai Club got the impression that [Mr.] Putin is not departing. It remains to be seen if he will return as president, or stay as an even stronger prime minister. Intentions are clear that he wants to form the strategy of Russia, and he wants to be an active politician."
When Mr. Medvedev was elected and Mr. Putin assumed the role of prime minister, many in Russia and in the international community wondered whether the new president would have the blessing of Mr. Putin, his mentor, to pursue his own agenda and the strength to carry it through on his own terms.
In recent weeks, Mr. Putin has been cultivating his image as a man of action. Night after night, Russians watched on the evening television news as their prime minister piloted a fire-fighting plane, shot an arrow into an Arctic whale, inaugurated a pipeline to China, launched construction of a space center and drove a bright yellow Russian-made Lada car across Siberia.
Nikolai Petrov, political analyst of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Mr. Putin's image contrasts with that of President Medvedev in the public's mind.
"What is understandable for ordinary Russians is the fact that [Mr.] Medvedev is speaking, and [Mr.] Putin is doing. So [Mr.] Putin did manage to create the image of the guy who not only controls the situation almost entirely, but who is doing, who is acting, who is coming to ordinary Russians, who is visible on the ground, while [Mr.] Medvedev is sticking in his office and communicating with a few officials," said Petrov.
In his meeting this week with the visiting intellectuals, Mr. Putin cited the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the wartime U.S. president who was elected to four terms in office. No other U.S. leader had been in office that long, and the U.S. Constitution was later amended to limit a president's service to two terms.
Russia's constitution limits presidential terms to two in succession. In 2008, after two consecutive terms in office, Mr. Putin stepped aside. His protégé, Mr. Medvedev, was elected to a four-year term.
Because the Russian constitution only limits terms that are consecutive, Mr. Putin is eligible to run again in elections in March 2012. If he were elected to two additional consecutive terms, Mr. Putin could conceivably serve as president through 2024.
Anatol Lieven, a Russia expert at King's College London, also participated in the two meetings this week, first with Mr. Putin then with Mr. Medvedev.
"I am not sure whether [Mr.] Putin will run for president in 2012," said Lieven. "I am sure that, as long as he wants to be, he will remain the strong man in the state. He may be content, it is possible, unlikely, but possible, that he will leave [Mr.] Medvedev to occupy the bully pulpit and to sort of move reform along in a limited way along the edges, while [Mr.] Putin retains the real power over the real institutions of the state."
Russia's president complained recently that ministers and governors have checked their Blackberries and sent tweets during his meetings.