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Dmitry Medvedev's Theater Of The Absurd

Medvedev and Putin are opposites in demeanor, but ideological twins.
Medvedev and Putin are opposites in demeanor, but ideological twins.
There is something charming and almost endearing about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The difference between him and his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, currently the country's prime minister, is like day and night.

There is something heartwarming about how happy, genial, and homely the fresh-faced Medvedev looks on TV. If he were a woman, he'd probably be called Marussia and would be good at knitting sweaters and making preserves for the winter. He is, in fact, the exact antipode of Putin, who exudes glacial chill and seems to consider it necessary to couch his rather predictable arguments in unpleasant terms.

Medvedev's youthfulness and charm have already won him a loyal following, especially among those Moscow pundits and commentators who were unhappy with some of the extreme aspects of Putin's eight years in power. Those commentators have recently penned a series of articles in the Russian press assuring us that Medvedev, like the tormented hero of a Russian novel, is a man of extraordinary character and moral vision. Deep in his heart he cherishes noble (and liberal) instincts, and is only waiting for Putin to loosen his stranglehold on the country to decree a Khrushchev-style "thaw."

Such analyses received a much-needed boost early last month when Medvedev published an essay on a democratic-leaning website lamenting Russia's backwardness and outlining his vision of its future. "Russia can develop democratically," the Russian leader declared. Its political system will "be extremely open, flexible, and intrinsically complex," he promised.

In the avalanche of comments that ensued, however, the most common criticism leveled against Medvedev's high-blown rhetoric was that it never translates into concrete policies or actions.

Parliamentary Theater

Last week, Medvedev was given the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his democratic credentials. On October 14, three opposition parties in the Russian State Duma staged a dramatic walkout to protest the results of local elections three days before, which they claimed had been rigged in favor of United Russia, the ruling party nominally headed by Putin.

A total of 135 deputies from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia, and the Communist Party took part in the protest, which caused something of a political sensation. Once a common occurrence in Russia's parliamentary life, such overt protests have become rarer in recent years than a smile from a Yukos manager.

The protesters demanded a meeting with President Medvedev in his capacity as "guarantor of the constitution," and a recount of the votes. "It is dishonorable to take away the last democratic things that are left in the country: freedom of speech and elections," said Vladimir Kashin, deputy head of the Communist Party -- which, in Stalin's time, sent 200,000 people to the gulag just for telling jokes, according to a Russian historian.

The LDPR's hypocrisy was equally glaring. Despite the fact that the partial results of the ballot were known already on election day, the party chief and the main instigator of the October 14 events, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for some unfathomable reason waited for three days to make his demarche, which only added an extra dimension of theatricality to the proceedings: Zhirinovsky rolling his eyes and looking befuddled, angry, and uncomprehending (but then he always does).

The fact that the three protesting parties, which never had any respect for democratic norms or values, finally got a taste of their own medicine would be gratifying but for the quick and almost cruel rebuff which they received from Medvedev. The president would meet the opposition factions, but his view that United Russia's victory was convincing has not changed, his spin doctor told journalists.

Did the parties that staged the walkout expect anything different? They cannot have possibly believed there are any ideological divisions between Putin and Medvedev, who have worked together for the past 18 years. Didn't Putin, quoting Rudyard Kipling, say recently about his partnership with Medvedev: "We be of one blood"?

It seems safe to infer that Medvedev realizes that without Putin's blessing he would never have become president. Medvedev also appears to understand the perils of showing disloyalty to his patron. In the 18 months he has been in power, he has not made a single statement that required courage, or taken a single step that could have upset the status quo.

Following The Tsar’s Example

The current division of power is not without historical precedent, as any Russian history buff will tell you. In 1574, Ivan the Terrible abdicated the throne in favor of his courtier Simeon Bekbulatovich, a baptized Tatar nobleman. A chronicler describes Ivan's bizarre move as follows: "At that time Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich enthroned Simeon Bekbulatovich as tsar in Moscow and crowned him with the crown of the tsars, and called himself [simply] Ivan of Moscow.... All the offices of the tsardom he passed to Simeon, and himself rode simply, like a boyar..., and whenever he comes to Tsar Simeon, he sits at a distance from the tsar's place, together with the boyars."

Ivan would return to the throne 11 months later. There is little doubt Putin will do the same in 2012.

The most depressing aspect of the deputies' rather farcical walkout is the notion, widely spread, it seems, among the political class in Russia that Russian citizens and voters are so pathetic, so completely worthless and brain-dead that they cannot see the utter dishonesty and depravity of such spectacles. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence has by now understood that the sole purpose of the Duma "revolt" was to serve as a lightning rod for the high-voltage anger that this latest election fraud had generated, especially among grassroots activist groups. Russian political strategists had better understand that next time such tricks may not work.

In the commotion created by the three political parties, the news of the "restructuring" of Russia's last remaining liberal TV channels passed almost unnoticed. As of next year, the content for the news broadcasts of REN-TV and St. Petersburg's Fifth Channel will be produced by the state-funded TV company Russia Today, the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 16.

If that happens, it will, in effect, mean that Medvedev's presidency was marked by the destruction of the last bastion of independent television journalism in Russia.

Medvedev need not lose any sleep over that, however. He is unlikely to go down in history as the man who hammered the last nail into the coffin of media freedom in Russia. After all, few remember these days that it was Medvedev who, as boss of Gazprom Media at the dawn of the Putin era, was behind the takeover and subsequent silencing of a number of media companies critical of the Kremlin, including the independent TV channel NTV. Instead, Medvedev will be remembered as a wily courtier who was made a stand-in tsar by the real one.

Aslan Doukaev is director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL