Argument

Medvedev the Phony

Russia's outgoing president was never the liberal reformer he claimed to be. But don't just take our word for it -- he said so himself.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Russian political circus has extended its tour. Four years ago, Dmitry Medvedev was chosen to keep warm the seat of Vladimir Putin, and now as Putin returns to the presidency, Medvedev will assume the post of prime minister. This job swap, announced last September, might have been accepted by most Russians without a murmur several years ago, but Russia has changed dramatically since then. The swap instead has deepened resentment among many in the country, who view it as a slap in the face. In December, hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets against the rigged election, which in their eyes made Putin’s presidency illegitimate.

But where does this leave Medvedev? "Who?" some might ask dismissively. "Putin’s puppet?" others might sneer. To many Russians, the outgoing president is viewed as a nonentity whose primary concrete legacy will be the absurd reduction of Russia’s time zones from 11 to 9. During his putative presidency, the Russian system displayed unmistakable signs of decay, demonstrated by the growing role of repressive organs and their criminalization, the fusion of power with property, and the ruling elites’ attempts to pass their wealth and positions to their families and friends. Medvedev would often utter liberal-sounding ideas — his anodyne comment that "freedom is better than non-freedom" caused quite a flutter of excitement, briefly — but the follow-through on his proposals was never there. He had the power only to speak, not act. The more he tried to be taken seriously, the more comical and pathetic he looked. Often, Putin would be caught by cameras looking at his protégé with condescending amusement.

Why, then, would Putin keep Medvedev on as prime minister? Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, or nearly any other high-level official, would arguably be a more effective choice. But effectiveness isn’t Putin’s goal. Instead, his criteria are based on loyalty, keeping a corrupt architecture intact, and eliminating potential threats. This is how the personalized system in Russia works: By stepping aside and not running for reelection, Medvedev has demonstrated his loyalty to Putin, and in turn, Putin has shown that he rewards loyalty. The only silver lining of Putin’s return to power may be how it reveals Medvedev’s supposedly reformist presidency for the farce it really was.

Here is Medvedev’s legacy in one sentence: He enabled Putin’s personalized rule to continue unabated.

Medvedev played his role to a T. He guaranteed the regime’s continuity and helped Putin avoid violating the constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms. But he did more than that. For Putin’s return, Medvedev lengthened the presidential term from four to six years, and should Putin eye a second term in 2018, he could wind up serving as president for 20 years (24 if you count the stint as prime minister when he was still really calling the shots).

Medvedev’s signature policy was modernization, but beyond building Skolkovo — his dubious attempt at fostering a Russian "Silicon Valley" — he has little to show for it. Indeed, modernization, like many things Medvedev advocated, has been a major disappointment. He called for a serious anti-corruption campaign, but corruption remained pervasive during his tenure, according to Transparency International’s surveys. He promised that those responsible for attacks and murders against journalists, activists, and opposition leaders would be investigated and brought to justice; instead, in a case that exemplifies Medvedev’s impotence, a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, beaten and allegedly murdered in prison for exposing corruption, is being prosecuted posthumously.

By the end of Medvedev’s presidency, Russia endowed law enforcement agencies with increased powers and witnessed greater harassment of the opposition and administrative pressure on entrepreneurs (every third prisoner in Russia is a businessman). Shakedowns by police or other state authorities have become a more regular occurrence for many Russians, leading a growing percentage to want to emigrate and along with them record amounts of capital flight. Russia remains heavily dependent on commodities and their export amid dwindling expenditures on social needs and militarization of the budget (one-third of its expenditures go to the "power ministries"). The farcical second trials of oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev took place under Medvedev’s watch, and he also passed on the opportunity to pardon both men.

It was under the "liberal" Medvedev that mass fraud took place during the December 2011 parliamentary elections and the March 4 presidential election. The official Duma results gave the party in power, United Russia, 49.3 percent, but reliable exit polls suggest its tally was closer to 35 percent. Similarly, Putin officially got 64 percent of the vote, whereas independent sources claim that he scored below the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.

If anything, Medvedev actually stoked the educated urban population’s resentment of the regime with his empty preaching on democracy and freedom. He came to resemble the doddering and impotent Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, whose elevation as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1984 following Yuri Andropov’s death symbolized a decaying system; people were simply waiting for him to pass from the scene, too. Despite their difference in age, Chernenko and Medvedev both achieved the same result by deepening people’s revulsion with the system. At the same time, their impotence led to an erosion of fear, an emotion Putin had used effectively to maintain control during his first eight years in power. That reduction in fear may in fact make a fragile regime even more brittle.

On foreign policy, Medvedev’s presence in the Kremlin allowed Washington to go ahead with the reset, a policy largely unthinkable had Putin remained president. Obama saw restoring the Moscow-Washington relationship that soured at the end of George W. Bush’s administration as a top priority and consequently spoke or met with Medvedev more than almost any other world leader. The reset policy overlooked the fact that the Russian system, notwithstanding the softer Medvedev facade, had not changed; this reality has become more apparent in the past year over differences on Syria, missile defense, and human rights. Moreover, one shouldn’t forget that the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war happened on Medvedev’s watch, and Moscow’s annexation of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia reflects its continuing neo-imperialist tradition. It should have been obvious to all much earlier that Medvedev’s liberal, pro-Western image was more fiction than fact.

Many in Russia hoped that Medvedev represented a real change from Putin and Putinism. Russian opposition leaders even accepted Medvedev’s invitation to discuss democratization after the December 2011 protests. Human rights leaders were cautiously willing to see whether progress was possible, and they were willing to lend their participation to the presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council. At least four members of this presidential council have no intention of continuing to serve under Putin, according to its chairman, Mikhail Fedotov.

In the West, quite a few were enchanted by the new Kremlin tenant. One of the most astute observers of Russia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, described Medvedev as "the most prominent spokesman for the modernization-democratization school of thought" and noted Medvedev’s understanding of the need for democratization as a "milestone in Russia’s political evolution." Other observers, including some in the U.S. government, offered gushing praise of Medvedev, attributing great significance to his pronouncements on modernization and anti-corruption.

More recently, Medvedev set his admirers straight. "In my views, I’ve never been a liberal," he announced after accepting an offer to lead the United Russia party, essentially admitting that he had been lying not only to his Western interlocutors, but to his citizens as well. Medvedev became a convenient excuse for some who wanted to reconcile or do business with the Kremlin. In reality, his hollow rhetoric legitimized the reality of Russian authoritarianism and helped the Russian political elite and business oligarchs interact with the West.

In moving to the prime minister’s position, Medvedev will remain a footnote in history. At least now, however, the West and those inside Russia waiting for Medvedev to begin real change can stop pretending and hoping. Putin’s formal return to the Kremlin lays bare the real Russian system of one-man rule we’ve in fact been dealing with for the past dozen years.

The end of Medvedev’s phony liberal presidency is likely to force the Kremlin to rely more on repressive mechanisms and stoke nationalism. This, in turn, is likely to produce rising frustration and anger within society and possibly spark political upheaval; already, more labor strikes have occurred in Russia this year than all of last year. Disappointment with Medvedev is apt to kill the false hope that change would emanate from the top in Russia. At the same time, pressure from below could lead to unforeseen circumstances not unlike those witnessed recently in the Arab world.

As Medvedev relinquishes formal power, he leaves his country demoralized. Under his presidency, the regime became more corrupt and discredited, while the country stagnated. The one bright spot is that the Russian people have displayed an awakening, a growing desire to demand accountability from their government. Sunday’s demonstration involved tens of thousands of protesters; hundreds were arrested and brutally assaulted by massive security forces in the latest evidence that the regime is losing legitimacy. The crackdown, which aptly occurred on Medvedev’s last day in office, raises more questions about the sustainability of the system. The protesters’ readiness to confront the authorities proves that Russia is entering turbulent times.

In preparing for his departure, Medvedev said, "Everybody should relax: This" — his tandem with Putin — "is for a long time." Such cocky sentiments suggest that neither he nor his boss has learned any lessons from their time in the Kremlin, let alone any lessons from Russia’s long history.

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

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