Cheer Up, Little Dima

Cheer Up, Little Dima

This has been a terrible week for Dmitry Medvedev. First, of course, he was dumped as Russia’s president. Then there was the blowup with the finance minister. Finally, he had to endure the revival of all those mortifying two-guys-go-into-a-restaurant jokes, the kind in which Medvedev always features as the "vegetable" and Putin as the "steak."

To all this, I say: Buck up, Mr. President. The past four years have not been a total waste. Medvedev did more than keep the presidential seat warm. He changed the country’s politics in ways that will make Putin’s job as president much more challenging. For this, anyone who cares about where Russia is headed should be grateful.      

The open secret of the long succession drama was that a large portion of the Russian political elite, even people in his direct employ, did not want Putin to return as president. To them, he felt like yesterday’s man — someone who many said had served the country well in the past, but whose work was done. Who could not possibly take the country forward. Who would, in fact, make the country feel like Central Asia.

A lot of these people made their case openly. For months, the media and airwaves were full of pundits bewailing Putin’s return. They spoke up loudly this week, too. Medvedev’s own economic advisor was typical. "There is nothing to be happy about," Arkady Dvorkovich tweeted after the announcement. And when Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, had to be fired because he refused to work under Medvedev as prime minister, he wasn’t just dissing Medvedev. He was slamming Putin’s entire plan — and his policies, too.

The people who didn’t want Putin back haven’t gotten their way, of course. But this uproar represents a different kind of success. Four years ago, when Putin’s best pal from his KGB days, Sergei Ivanov, was passed over for the presidency, he was said to have thrown an ashtray at a TV set. But he didn’t denounce his betters in public, he didn’t refuse to serve Medvedev, and he didn’t have people wondering whether he might become (as Kudrin may) a leader of the opposition. He made no news at all. Compared with the orderly but farcical selection of Putin’s successor in 2007, this year’s events look more like real politics.

The past four years have also taken a toll on United Russia, Putin’s own creation, now known colloquially as "the party of crooks and thieves." And who deserves the credit for its troubles? Well, among many others, Medvedev and Kudrin. Both have argued in public that the party is corrupt and can only be saved by the introduction of real political competition.

Medvedev’s high-flown public pronouncements are often treated with scorn, and it’s true enough that he wasn’t able to follow through on his critique of the system over which he presided. (OK, "presided.") But the critique itself has to be admired. It was, for one thing, more far-reaching than generally recognized. Medvedev attacked such old chestnuts as the corruption of the state bureaucracy and the poor performance of state corporations. But he went way beyond this, too. He talked about the debilitating psychological legacies of Soviet times and the hopelessness of basing a foreign policy on paranoia. These were not just admirable sentiments. They were a universally understood rejection of Putinism.

Meanwhile, Russian politics is stirring. So far, the efforts to bring it back to life — to reinvigorate old parties, form viable new groupings, register avowed oppositionists, and identify new funders, new leaders, and new followers — have failed. But there is no shortage of activity and no shortage of worry in Putin’s entourage. Medvedev, in the end, showed himself to be a loyal member of that entourage. He has also done an admirable amount to stoke the worry of its other members.

Could he have done more? Could he have played his hand better? Throughout his tenure, opponents of the regime kept urging him to "fire" Putin. It’s obvious now that this thought was never in his mind. Medvedev’s only real route to becoming an independent politician — and a second-term president — was to make himself more popular than Putin, and the only way to do that would have been to create a string of successes that resonated with the public. Putin was not going to let that happen.

In the end, Medvedev took a different path. He encouraged people to talk about what’s wrong with the system. By last Sunday when Putin finally said, "Let me drive again," his little pal had made the job of steering Russia back into the past a lot harder.