by Bobo Lo
As Dmitry Medvedev walked across Red Square to join the concert celebrating his crushing victory in the Russian presidential elections, he could have been forgiven for wondering whether he had reached the pinnacle of achievement or been handed a poisoned chalice. For someone who had just garnered more than 70 per cent of the popular vote, he looked remarkably ill at ease.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that the electorate had not voted for him so much as for the man walking beside him. Vladimir Putin has not only dominated Russian politics over the past eight years, but is arguably the strongest leader his country has seen since the death of Stalin more than 50 years ago.
Mr Medvedev can seek comfort in precedent. In August 1999, Boris Yeltsin picked out a virtual unknown to be his heir-apparent in the Kremlin. His choice, Vladimir Putin, was almost universally disrespected as a puppet with little ability or even personality. Russia’s chattering classes were liberal in their scorn and predicted that the oligarchs who dominated in the 1990s would continue to manipulate the political process.
The key question today is whether Dmitry Medvedev can replicate Putin’s feat. Will he become his own man, a ‘new man’ for a new era, or will he forever be in thrall to the siloviki (security figures) who have dominated Russian politics under Putin?
The new president starts out with some important advantages. He has a decent record of public service and has managed to avoid scandal and charges of incompetence. He is a ‘Mr Cleanskin’, which counts for something in a country where corruption is endemic and the public cynical. He has few serious enemies, and plays well to a foreign and particularly Western audience. Most importantly, he is Putin’s personal choice, so the chances of lasting out his presidential term are good.
On the other hand, the circumstances of his election – or rather selection – suggest that he faces a real battle in establishing himself as a credible political figure. It is hard to escape the feeling that Putin chose him because he was the least threatening, rather than most capable, of the possible candidates. As a ‘made man’ who models himself consciously on his patron, Medvedev represents the best bet for preserving Putin’s policies and legacy.
Just to make sure, however, Putin is moving into the White House as Prime Minister. The presidential succession has shown that he is far from ready to ride into the sunset (or lie on a Sardinian beach). Although Kremlin insiders had speculated that he might become Russia’s Deng Xiaoping – a ‘father of the nation’ above the trappings of high office – Putin has opted for the safety of institutional legitimacy.
It is unclear how all this will work. There is no tradition of dual power (dvoevlastie) in Russia. On the rare occasions it has been tried, it has failed, with unfortunate and sometimes disastrous consequences. If nature abhors a vacuum, then Russians have a similar aversion to power-sharing.
There is some speculation that an underestimated Medvedev could ‘do a Putin’, in other words, take power incrementally and surreptitiously. However, this would require not just his predecessor’s backing but also departure from the political stage. The constitution gives the president enormous powers at the expense of the government and legislature, but in Russia influence has always rested with strong personalities over weak institutions. As long as Putin remains politically active, Medvedev will have little opportunity (or inclination) to make his mark.
We should moderate our expectations accordingly. Under Medvedev, Russia will remain much as it is – a semi-authoritarian capitalist system, dominated by vested interests. There will be some softening around the edges, but these will be of a cosmetic rather than substantive character. In foreign policy, Putin’s presence will ensure that Russia maintains a tough stance with the West and a proprietorial interest towards its neighbourhood. The Kremlin will stay committed to the vision of Russia as a great global power, and will pursue this aggressively. Dmitry Medvedev may eventually become more than a Putin clone, but the advent of Post-Putin Man remains a distant prospect.
Bobo Lo is director of the Russia and China Programmes at the Centre for European Reform.
Any experienced turn around manager would back Putin's initiative to gain more time required to complete the work done so far in bringing Russia back from bancrupcy and social chaos on to a sound financial and social footing. The Russian people know they have a great deal to thank him for and realise that the present arrangement is a double act with Putin still calling the shots similar to what is happening in France but in reverse. This is clearly in the best interests of the Russian people at the present time.
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