Nobody in Russia or the rest of the world was particularly surprised when the results of the March 2 presidential election were announced and Dmitry Medvedev won 70.2 percent of the vote. Most political commentators saw his victory as essentially guaranteed when United Russia, the biggest political party in the country—as well as the party of Vladimir Putin—officially endorsed Medvedev as their candidate back on December 17, 2007.
Since then, it has been a meteoric rise to the top for the previously unknown lawyer. By election time, the opposition parties ranged from weak to non-existent with some of them being informally suppressed by the Kremlin bureaucracy through the enforcement of unrealistic registration deadlines and minimal coverage by the state media. As Putin’s hand picked-successor, Medvedev, who previously served as First Deputy Prime Minister, immediately steps into a position of significant authority.
During his eight years in office Putin increasingly concentrated power in the presidency under the name of a new form of “sovereign democracy.” One of his first major acts in 2000 was to abolish seats for regional governors in the upper house of parliament, replacing them with Moscow-approved ones. Political opposition was slowly phased out, to the point that in April 2007 a rally by the anti-Kremlin coalition The Other Russia was broken up and its participants, including Garry Kasparov, were fined and arrested.
Even more troubling is the way the most persistent critics of the government were dealt with. The circumstantial deaths of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her own building, and former FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with highly radioactive polonium—both within two months of each other—showed the Kremlin’s willingness to go to any length to silence criticism.
A more assertive foreign policy has also been a focal point of the legacy Putin has created for himself. The relationship between Russia and the United States has grown increasingly strained since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent westward drift of countries traditionally in the Russian sphere of influence, such as Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Georgia. Putin’s government has spun this drift into a rallying point at home for a revival of nationalism under the leadership of a strong central authority and also made clear its intentions to prevent Kosovo’s recognition in the United Nations. Furthermore, Russia is now involved in a tense border standoff with Georgia over the breakaway semi-autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which the Georgians see as part of their territory.
These recent trends place Medvedev in a unique situation. By officially assuming the presidency on May 7, he was thrust onto the stage of world politics that few believe this lifetime technocrat is prepared for. The next day Putin was approved as his Prime Minister by an overwhelming 392-56 vote in the State Duma. Because constitutional limits prevented Putin from seeking more than two consecutive terms in office but they do not place an overall limit on how many times someone may hold the position, it is a shrewd but predictable move by him to be ‘demoted’ to prime minister while naming a successor who is unlikely to sway from the party line. In his public remarks since the election, Medvedev has made it clear that he will not break from the political atmosphere created by Putin. While giving lip service to the importance of reinforcing the laws and limiting the nepotism of the Kremlin bureaucracy, he has also taken Putin’s hard-line stance on NATO’s possible expansion into eastern Europe and generally said all the right things about his willingness to share power with his new prime minister.
Yet interestingly enough, there is cautious optimism among some that Medvedev may turn out to be a moderate leader who would be willing to take a more lenient approach toward economic matters than his predecessor. Unlike Putin, Medvedev does not have a secret service background but a financial one. He served as chairman of Gazprom—the corporate giant that supplies 25 percent of the European Union’s natural gas.
Medvedev has already spoken about the need for further liberalization of the economy in order to make it more dynamic and diverse. This liberalization would include lessening taxes to encourage the growth of the private sector and urging government officials on the boards of companies to be replaced by independent directors. Western politicians may find this economic pragmatism a hopeful sign. As Peter Mandelson, the European Union’s Commissioner for Trade, stated, “he will have a broader economic outlook” and a “more modern, less introspective, approach to the job.”
During the inauguration ceremony Putin himself reflected these views, claiming that “to stimulate an increase in production and refining of oil, it is time to cut the tax burden in that sector.” Kremlin watchers should not, however, look forward to a new era of Russian openness. Medvedev’s Kremlin rival Sergei Ivanov, the former minister of defense and the man Putin passed on as his successor, is still considered one of the closest members of Putin’s inner circle and is said to oppose the economic plan Medvedev has in mind. Therefore, any final decision about the economy is likely to come from Putin.
Furthermore, with Putin nearby, it is unlikely that Medvedev will be allowed to forget to whom he owes his success. While Medvedev may be new to the center stage of Russian politics, he has enough experience in behind-the-scenes maneuvering to realize that dissociating himself from the most popular Russian head of state since Stalin is a move he cannot afford to make now or in the near future.
Rafael Khatchaturian is an intern at Dissent and a graduate student at the New School. Photo: Veronica Khokhlova (creative commons).