The Russian president touted recent proposals to reform the electoral system, saying "these [old] rules are not working." He reassured students that "nobody is imposing" censorship in Russia, adding that this would be "impossible in the modern world."
And he insisted that his political career wasn't over. "I've never said that I will not run for office again. I will remind you that I'm only 46 and this is not an old enough age to give up any future political battles," Medvedev said.
I don't think anybody believed him. In fact, I wonder if anybody outside the hall he spoke in was even paying attention.
Since Medvedev announced on September 24
that he would not seek another term as president, it has been easy to dismiss him as a political lightweight, a placeholder who kept the Kremlin warm for Vladimir Putin's return and is now destined to become little more than a historical footnote.
But depending upon how the current political crisis is resolved, Medvedev's little presidency-with-an-asterisk could actually turn out to be quite consequential for Russia.
This is true less because of anything he accomplished in office than because of the role he played, how he played it, and the way the ruling class and broader public reacted to his time in office.
Despite his weakness -- or perhaps because of it -- Medvedev unleashed political forces in the elite and in society that are now reaching critical mass. Whether this was intentional or inadvertent is largely irrelevant -- it happened and Russia is a changed country as a result.
According to most conventional wisdom, Putin chose Medvedev as his temporary successor back in 2008 because he was a weak and pliant figure.
He didn't hail from the siloviki clan of tough security-service veterans. He lacked the charisma and bureaucratic muscle to build a team and forge a political identity independent of Putin. There was little risk of him getting any bright ideas about staying in the Kremlin any longer than his patron wanted him there.
Could Putin have been so sure about Sergei Ivanov -- the other possible successor in 2008 -- their long friendship and shared KGB past notwithstanding? I doubt it.
Medvedev remained loyal to Putin, and there was never any doubt about who was really in charge.
But in forming the tandem and turning Medvedev into his political alter ego, Putin unintentionally created a vessel for the hopes and aspirations of the technocratic wing of the ruling elite -- which had been playing second fiddle to the siloviki clan of security-service veterans for nearly a decade.
The technocrats clearly believed that the time for political reform had come -- and appeared to see in Medvedev a vehicle for realizing it. They wanted Perestroika 2.0 and over the course of his presidency they became increasingly vocal about it.
Splits began appearing shortly after Medvedev was inaugurated.
This schism became increasingly manifest throughout Medvedev's presidency.
Moreover, Medvedev's softer style (his Twitter account, his love for Deep Purple
) and his rhetoric about modernization and reform -- event though it wasn't followed up by any real action -- set expectations in society, especially among the urban middle class, that change was coming. As the professional class became accustomed to the more benevolent optics of the Medvedev presidency, it became more wedded to the idea of reform -- and more allergic to a return of Putinism.
With the blogger president sitting in the Kremlin with his iPad, the Internet came of age as a political tool in Russia. Independent online media outlets like Dozhd TV
were born and blogging platforms like LiveJournal blossomed and thrived.
Protest actions became more brazen and more creative, with groups like the art collective Voina
making waves with a series of offbeat demonstrations.
Society was changing and it was obvious to anybody paying attention.
The catalyst that sparked the regime's current legitimacy crisis
, of course, was the United Russia congress on September 24, when it was announced that Medvedev would step aside and Putin would return to the Kremlin.
And the tandem suddenly lost its mojo.
Medvedev looked weak and irrelevant. Putin, who liked to style himself as a strong leader in the tradition of tsarist-era Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin or Soviet leader Yury Andropov, suddenly was being compared to the doddering Leonid Brezhnev
. Suddenly, he was being booed at sporting events
By the time the parliamentary elections rolled around in December, the stage was set for a revolt.
Nobody knows how the current political crisis will play itself out, and those who claim to know are fooling themselves. But the seeds of the dramatic developments we are now seeing were planted during Medvedev's presidency.
This is his legacy, even though he is unlikely to be its beneficiary.
-- Brian Whitmore