Same as the old boss? Dmitry Medvedev sure looks that way.
When he was a teenager, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev used to pine for blue jeans and dream of attending Pink Floyd and Deep Purple concerts. It’s anecdotes like these that those hoping for a thaw in Russia’s relationship with the West—and with the concept of dem-
ocracy in general—cling to as evidence that Russia’s new leader, who easily won the March presidential election with about 70 per cent of the vote, will turn out to be more liberal than his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Putin, after all, once dreamed of becoming a Cold War spy, and then he became one. As president, Putin entrenched current and former members of Russia’s security services in the most powerful positions within the state, stifled political dissent, tried to control civil society, and generally rolled
back advances toward democracy made under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
The constitution forbade Putin from serving a third consecutive term as president. To get around this, he hand-picked Medvedev as his successor, and then took the job of prime minister after Medvedev nominated him to the post. Medvedev has always been Putin’s ally, but his tone is different. “We are well aware that no non-democratic state has ever become truly prosperous, for one simple reason,” he has said. “Freedom is better than non-freedom.”
Such words make many wonder if Russia will become more open and democratic under his leadership. The evidence so far suggests it won’t. “We often tend to focus on rhetoric, the statements coming from Medvedev,” Aurel Braun, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of a new book on Russia-NATO relations, told Maclean’s. “Some of these are reassuring. He speaks the democratic language. He is sophisticated. He seems personable. He certainly looks good. But I don’t see much in terms of the ability of this man to push through a comprehensive program that in substantive ways would differ from that of Vladimir Putin. Much depends on what Medvedev’s actual role will be. “We may assume the best possible intentions on his part, in terms of creating a more democratic, a more stable, a better citizen of the international community,” says Braun. “And if we grant him all that—I’m not sure we can, but let’s say we do—we’re still faced with this very difficult question of what exactly is his capacity.”
Medvedev is Russia’s president because of Vladimir Putin. Younger than Putin, and one or two inches shorter, Medvedev worked for the former president for years. He ran his election campaign in 2000 and later became Putin’s chief of staff. Before becoming president, Medvedev had never held elected office. While chairing Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas giant, gave Medvedev some notoriety, his power is almost entirely based on connections to Putin. Election posters showed Medvedev next to Putin under the slogan: “Together we will win!”
Putin was clearly the driving force behind Medvedev’s election. Now that Medvedev is president, it is far from clear that Putin is willing to take on a subordinate role. In May,
Putin travelled to France and had dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elyséee Palace—an honour that would normally be reserved for the Russian president. Medvedev, however, did not even visit western Europe in his capacity as president until June, when he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
There have been rumours of tensions between Putin and Medvedev. But Andrei Soldatov, director of Agentura, a Russian
think tank specializing in security issues, says these are baseless. If anything, they reflect a good cop-bad cop image designed for the outside world. And even if Medvedev were to turn against his patron, it’s unlikely he’d have much of a chance in a power struggle against Putin, who still controls many of the official and unofficial levers of power in Russia. Legislation must be passed by the Duma, or parliament, which is controlled by Putin’s United Russia party. Theoretically, as president, Medvedev could dismiss Putin. “But would members of the Duma, the military, the security services, go along with that?” Braun asks. “I highly doubt it.”
Any changes under Medvedev will therefore be subtle. He may be a Putin loyalist, but he’s not a clone. For starters, Medvedev never worked for the KGB or its successor agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. This makes him something of a rarity among
Russia’s political and business elite. While it’s true that the lines between tycoon and spook have lately become blurred in Russia —Medvedev would never have found the success he has if he wasn’t trusted by the country’s security services—Medvedev is considered a businessman rather than a political ideologue. He never belonged to the Soviet Communist party and has spoken in favour of “economic freedom.”
This doesn’t mean human and civil rights are likely to improve, however. Alexey Sidorenko, program coordinator at the Carnegie Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that while Medvedev is unlikely to crack down as hard as Putin did against opposition groups and independent political parties, even small advances in freedom will never take precedence over the state’s prosperity. “They consider the whole country like a corporation,” Sidorenko said of Medvedev and Putin. “That’s why they have such big problems with civil liberties and public rights, because they simply do not take it into account. Simple economic efficiencies are much more important.”
Many Russians who lived through decades of Soviet squalor, followed by the breakup of the Soviet empire and a punishing transition to capitalism, seem to care more about simple economic efficiencies as well. Russia is now benefiting from record-high oil and gas prices. It’s a one-dimensional economy, and when it collapses, Russia will have little to fall back on. In the meantime, though, neither Medvedev nor Putin will face strong pressure from voters to reform. Opposition parties are weak and receive little attention in Russian media, which, if not controlled by the state, are usually run by people loyal to it. Those who step out of line are punished.
Last year, state prosecutors brought charges of “extremism” against Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political analyst and member of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, over statements in his book, Unloved Country, which criticized Putin and his policies. Piontkovsky faces up to five years in jail if convicted. The court has not delivered a verdict, but the very act of charging an author and critic of the government sends a clear message that dissent will not be tolerated.
In an interview with Maclean’s, Piontkovsky, now a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, said Medvedev will face little immediate pressure to ease this suffocation of free speech. “Until this oil bonanza goes cold, the political system is rather stable,” he said, adding it’s even more unlikely that Putin and Medvedev will decide to liberalize Russia on their own. “Both of them have no interest in perestroika.” M
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