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Medvedev Marks A Year In The Kremlin, But Does He Rule?

  • Robert Coalson

A Kremlin source was recently quoted as saying President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have decided to use a note taker at their meetings because of “misunderstandings” that have arisen.

A Kremlin source was recently quoted as saying President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have decided to use a note taker at their meetings because of “misunderstandings” that have arisen.

Dmitry Medvedev's presidency began one year ago with pomp and ceremony in a glittering Kremlin palace with the cream of the country's political elite in attendance.

The festivities capped a months-long process in which the former first deputy prime minister became Putin’s hand-picked successor. But even before he took office, Medvedev announced that he would name Putin as prime minister, making it clear that Putin had no intention of stepping aside completely.

The story of Medvedev’s presidency, at least so far, is the story of two men.

The main themes of Medvedev’s presidential campaign were continuity and stability. In his inaugural address, Medvedev hit those notes again, looking into the future with optimism:

"A strong basis for the long-term development -- simply for decades of free and stable development ahead -- has been created over the last eight years," he said. "And we must use this unique chance to the maximum to make Russia one of the best countries of the world for comfortable, confident, and safe living. This is our strategy and this is our goal for the years ahead.”

And he made it clear Putin would remain at his side.

"I cordially thank President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for his unwavering personal support that I have always felt," Medvedev said. "I am sure this will continue in the future."

Highly Unusual

But many have been skeptical of the tandem structure since it started. The arrangement is highly unusual for Russia, and observers have assumed either that Putin kept his hand on the levers of power or that divisions would grow and threaten its stability. So far, however, the tandem has confounded such naysayers despite facing severe tests presented by events like war with Georgia last August and the global economic downturn.

Independent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, who is a harsh critic of Putin, attributes this viability to the long relationship between the two men, one that stretches back to when they both served in the city administration of St. Petersburg in the mid-1990s.

“After all, [Medvedev] worked for 15 years practically as [Putin's] secretary. And this, of course, created what they call in the West the ‘chemistry’ of their relations," Piontkovsky says. "It was no accident that he was the one who was elevated.”

He adds, however, that the behind-the-scenes agreement that brought Medvedev to the presidency was much more restrictive than the one that Putin made with his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 1999.

Medvedev meets with U.S. President Barack Obama (right) during a meeting in London on April 1.
“From the very beginning, Putin was given very broad freedom of action with just a few limitations mostly concerning the personal security of Yeltsin and his inner circle," Piontkovsky says. "As for Medvedev, his freedom to maneuver, under the [transition] agreement, is, in my opinion, considerably less.”

Journalist and author Masha Gessen agrees that, despite the differences in the styles of the two men, it is important to keep in mind that Medvedev is a longtime Putin insider.

“Medvedev was one of the people who created this system," Gessen says. "He did not come from the outside. He was not pulled out of some St. Petersburg think tank to be made president. He has been inside this Kremlin administration from its very beginnings.”


Views on how the tandem is working vary wildly.

“The Washington Post” recently quoted a Kremlin source as saying the two men have decided to use a note taker at their meetings because of “misunderstandings” that have arisen in recent months. Kremlin-connected political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky has said the two men appear in public together too rarely to inspire broad confidence in their working relationship.

Many analysts, including Gessen, hold to the view that Putin is still calling the shots, and dominating the tandem.

The population of Russia now sees him as a legitimate successor to Putin, as a legitimate leader, as someone who is respected, [although] perhaps not yet as mature a politician as Putin himself.
“The only way I find of interpreting it is if I look at Putin as the president and Medvedev as his first lady, and then it sort of all falls into place," Gessen says. "Because there is one person who plays a largely ceremonial role, who is allowed to make sort of humanitarian gestures -- or what they think of in the Kremlin as humanitarian gestures, such as reaching out to the less fortunate or including an opposition newspaper. That to me is much more logical than the idea that there is some sort of push-pull or that there is a tandem.”

Others concede that Putin was a towering political presence in Russia when his presidency ended, but say that Medvedev has been steadily coming into his own over the last year.

“The population of Russia now sees him as a legitimate successor to Putin, as a legitimate leader, as someone who is respected, [although] perhaps not yet as mature a politician as Putin himself,” says Andrei Tsygankov, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.

Tsygankov believes Medvedev is building up his own base of support within the ruling elite, relying on an increasingly active legal community and a cadre of policy intellectuals.

Who's Running The Country?

This divergence of opinion is reflected in opinion polls in Russia. A BBC-commissioned survey last month found that 15 percent of Russians believe Medvedev is running the country, while 27 percent think Putin is and 41 percent say power is divided equally.

A key reason for the uncertainty is the opacity of Russian government in the Putin-Medvedev era. Pavlovsky said recently that “even highly trusted experts say that the system of decision making is unfathomable.”

Asked to describe the power balance within the tandem, Gessen shrugs.

“I have no way of knowing," Gessen says. "I mean, that's one of the problems with Russia. That's one of the problems with what these guys have done over the last eight years -- and Medvedev has been right there. They have destroyed the media space so completely that even a fairly well-connected journalist has no way of getting reliable information about the way the government works.”

She added that the problem of opacity has “not improved over the last year” of Medvedev’s presidency.

Medvedev records a clip for his video blog at his residence in Gorki in February.
Another source of confusion is Medvedev’s image as relative liberal compared to Putin. Many liberals in Russia, as well as observers in the West, have tended to view the young lawyer in their own image, as a Western-style reformer.

Tsygankov cautions that this is not the case. "Medvedev's own views are still quite statist. He's not just a Western-style liberal. He's a traditional, Russian liberal -- a great-power liberal, you might say," he says.

He adds that although Medvedev is inclined to seek legalistic solutions to the problems vexing the country, he does not favor radical decentralization of political power or increasing the influence of private-sector interests at the expense of the state. He cites the fact that Medvedev headed the state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom when Russia’s aggressive energy politics took shape during Putin’s presidency and the continuity in those policies during Medvedev’s tenure.

The Work Of Putin?

Medvedev’s main achievement over the last year was pushing through a number of constitutional political reforms, including extending to six years the presidential term of office. The seeming urgency with which this was done was never fully explained and it seemed odd that the country’s political machinery would be so engaged in political reform as the economic crisis was taking hold.

Although Medvedev announced and advocated the reforms, analysts saw them as the work of Putin and the moves fueled speculation that Putin would return to the presidency either after Medvedev’s term or as a result of a pre-term election.

Otherwise, Medvedev’s presidency has been most clearly characterized by what Gessen calls “gestures.” He created a blog, first on the Kremlin’s website and later on the popular social-networking site He gave a much-discussed interview to the feisty independent newspaper “Novaya gazeta.” He has called for reforms of the judicial and corrections systems and an easing of state regulation of small business.

But his signature issue has been a truly daunting one: the fight against corruption and its attendant culture of “legal nihilism.” Although he has stimulated considerable discussion of these perennial problems, his only concrete achievement has been to order senior officials (including himself) to issue asset and income declarations for themselves, their spouses, and children. But that initiative has been blunted by the fact that there are no mechanisms for checking the declarations, and no clear punishments for filing false ones.

There is a very fine balance of money and fear that has kept this administration as powerful as it has been.
Gessen says that from Medvedev’s statements it seems clear he sincerely would like to do something to strengthen the rule of law -- but that he still lacks the muscle to turn his goals into actions.

"Judging from the fact that most of what he has done over the last year is make symbolic statements, he hasn't been given the chance,” Gessen says.

Realistic Approach

Tsygankov credits Medvedev, though, with taking on this nearly impossible problem. He says Medvedev’s approach is realistic, focusing on legal and procedural mechanisms that will gradually improve accountability. He cites particularly Medvedev’s advocacy of increasing the computerization of government records and information.

The future in Russia is always difficult to predict and the current economic crisis -- the length and severity of which remain unpredictable -- is a definite wild card. Tsygankov concedes that if the crisis is deep, the tandem could be destabilized, but he thinks this is unlikely. If recovery comes soon, he sees the transition from Putin to Medvedev continuing smoothly.

“If the crisis will begin to improve -- and if those predictions are correct that the American economy is bottoming out by the end of this year and will begin to improve next year, then the Russian economy will show signs of recovery also in a year or two after that -- then the crisis is still manageable and it will not produce major social and political instability," Tsygankov says. "And Medvedev will not only serve his term successfully, but probably will be also in a good position to run again.”

Piontkovsky believes the economic situation is more dire than the Kremlin lets on and that still worse is yet to come. He remains convinced there is a good chance that Putin will return to the Kremlin, seeing the constitutional reforms of last winter as an effort to pave the way for his return that was derailed by the economic crisis.

“[Putin’s] huge mistake in this entire operation was taking on the post of prime minister, considering that traditionally in Russia the prime minister is responsible for the economy," Piontkovsky says. "In such a situation, holding elections last December or in March would have looked like he was deserting his post. So now he is waiting for even a very tiny glimmer of some positive tendencies [in the economy] so that he can, under some convenient pretext, triumphantly complete Operation Successor.”

Gessen also thinks the crisis will get much worse before the situation improves. That, together with the frustrating opacity of the Putin-Medvedev system, she says, makes it impossible to do more than guess at the future.

"There is a very fine balance of money and fear that has kept this administration as powerful as it has been. And what we do know about these kinds of closed systems is that it actually always takes surprisingly little to make them crumble," Gessen says. "You just never know when it is going to come, and anybody who claims to be able to predict the future in this sense is a charlatan.”
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

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