By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) - People who know Dmitry Medvedev describehim as an intelligent and straightforward man who dislikes risk-- but does he have the political instincts to survive asRussia's next president?
He has been overwhelming favourite to win the March 2presidential election ever since his mentor, the outgoingPresident Vladimir Putin, endorsed Medvedev to replace him.
Medvedev's personal qualities could suit Putin's purposes:he needs a reliable and loyal ally in the Kremlin job if he isto exert influence after his own presidential term ends.
Some ex-colleagues question though whether Medvedev has thecunning and ruthlessness to impose his own authority in thejob.
"Dima is clever, clever enough to be president and he istough, tough enough to be president," one former colleague fromthe 1990s told Reuters on condition his name was not published.
"But you have to have a sense, an emotional intelligence, afeeling for decisions in the Kremlin - Putin has it, (FormerPresident Boris) Yeltsin definitely had it - does Dima? I don'tknow. We shall see," the former colleague said.
If he wins the election, the 42-year-old Medvedev willbecome the youngest Russian leader since Russia's last emperor,Tsar Nikolai II. He will also be the first Russian leader witha background in private business.
In contrast to Putin, a former KGB spy accused of rollingback democracy, former lawyer Medvedev has stressed theimportance of freedom and justice. He pleased markets by sayinghe wants to limit the Kremlin's role in big corporations.
But with a week to go before polling day, Medvedev'spersonality remains something of a mystery.
A man who himself says he is "buttoned-up" in public, theone-sided campaign has done nothing to expose his character. Hedeclined to take part in television debates and the onlyone-on-one interview he gave was paid for by his campaign.
So who is Dmitry Medvedev? The most striking theme thatemerged from interviews Reuters conducted with some ofMedvedev's former colleagues and acquaintances is that -- atleast until now -- he does not stand out from the crowd.
Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister at a time when Medvedevworked for Putin in the Kremlin, struggled to recall anythingof note about Medvedev.
"He is just a normal bureaucrat," shrugged Kasyanov, whobecame a fierce Kremlin opponent after he was sacked in 2004.
Even Medvedev's supporters do not have a lot to say abouthim. "He is a good guy, just a good guy," said one source closeto the Kremlin. "He does what he says he will."
Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, born into a family ofteachers, is remembered as a bookish child.
He says his favourite book was the Soviet Encyclopaedia --similar to the Encyclopaedia Britannica -- though he alsodeveloped a taste for British rock bands Black Sabbath, LedZeppelin and Deep Purple.
"He is very cultured, you can speak to him about thetheatre, music, he has a sense of humour," said NataliyaRasskazova, who studied with Medvedev at St PetersburgUniversity's law faculty, where Putin also studied.
"He has not changed. I saw him a year ago and there was noarrogance, he was not high and mighty," she said.
Medvedev taught law after graduating but also went to workfor Putin, who was chairman of the St Petersburg mayor'scommittee for external relations.
Medvedev also moved into business, a period of his lifewhich is left out of official biographies.
He worked as a key lawyer for the Ilim Pulp paper firm,helping to found the firm, though colleagues say he was nevertreated as an equal by the firm's owners. It has emerged as oneof Russia's leading companies in a sector worth billions ofdollars.
"He got a salary and he was in real business in the 1990s.He saw the reality," said his former colleague.
His ex-colleague said Medvedev took a stance unusual forthe time: he avoided paying bribes, even losing the company acourt case because he refused to give money to a judge.
Medvedev owes his political career to Putin. By 1999,Medvedev's old friend was prime minister and soon to replaceYeltsin as president. Putin invited Medvedev to Moscow.
He served as deputy chief of the Kremlin staff, later chiefof staff, and was made chairman of state-controlled Gazprom,the world's biggest gas firm.
Investment bankers said Medvedev displayed his power in theKremlin by pushing through a major reform of Gazprom thatallowed the state to consolidate its control but at the sametime opened up the firm's shares to ownership by foreigners.
Medvedev was catapulted into the presidential race latelast year when Putin said he was the right man for the job. Butwith Putin still powerful and planning to stay on as primeminister, Medvedev's position could be precarious.
"We are seeing just a part of the plan, the first fewscenes, and no one knows the ending - not even Medvedev - andhe can't know because (Putin's) plans could change depending onMedvedev," his former colleague said.
"Putin trusts Medvedev, he trusts his moderate characterand dislike of risk taking. That is what he needs, but how longdoes it last for Medvedev? How will it work?"
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe and Denis Pinchuk,editing by Peter Millership)