Medvedev: Dissident Reformer or Team Player

by Yuri Zarakhovich

On Thursday, September 10, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev published a key-note article on web portal outlining his vision of Russia’s future in the next decade. Reuters called it “his newest effort to distance himself from the legacy of his predecessor Vladimir Putin and build a power base of his own.”

Medvedev summed up Russia’s ills as “An ineffective economy, semi-Soviet social sphere, weak democracy, negative demographic trends and an unstable Caucasus,” and cited his biggest challenges as modernizing the economy, fighting corruption and abolishing state paternalism.

Hitherto, only a handful of dissidents who have managed to survive Vladimir Putin’s purges in Russia allowed themselves such sweeping statements. The official line is that Putin’s successful reign for a decade, was viciously interrupted by the perfidious United States which launched its mortgage crisis as a long shot to hurt Russia.

But this does not negate the fact that Medvedev has also been a co-architect of Russia’s hydrocarbon-based Putinomics. Over the last decade Medvedev has served as Putin’s Chief of Staff, Gazprom’s Chair of the Board, First Deputy Prime-Minister and became his Heir-Designate. Is his bid for real power rather than a figurehead position to be taken seriously now? Can it succeed?

Since Medvedev formally stepped into Putin’s presidential shoes, liberal wishful thinking both in and outside Russia has been portraying him as a closet liberal, set to correct Putin’s rollback of democracy.

Medvedev retained his formal position as Head of the Institute of Contemporary Development’s (INSOR) Board of Trustees as part of his carefully nurtured “closet liberal” image.

The Presidential visit to INSOR scholars on April 14 was carefully stage-managed with all the typical Kremlin royal pomp and massive media coverage. Medvedev discussed the increasingly alarming problem of unemployment, badly worsened by the current Russian economic crisis.

One of the April 14th INSOR report’s presenters was Yevgeni Gontmakher, a prominent and authoritative Russian economist.

However, on August 25, Gontmakher published an article on the Osobaya bookva internet resource where he tersely stated that:

A: Russia is collapsing;
B: there will be a mass mutiny rather than a revolution; and
C: that only urgent modernization, led by Prime Minister Putin, can save the day.

“Let me explain why Putin,” Gontmakher says. “Medvedev has been Head of state for the year and a half, and we see no attempt on his part to remove his predecessor from power…The Prime Minister is obsessed with repressing Khodorkovsky, shutting down the free media, destruction of civil society and an inadequate foreign policy. However, we don’t have another person, capable of influencing the situation.”

Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent and authoritative Russian political analyst, made the following comment on Gontmakher’s analysis: “For a year and a half… liberal public opinion has been hatching the absurd plan of Medvedev cutting off the branch under Putin…Like Khrushchev making his 20th Communist Party Congress report, with Stalin puffing on his pipe in the Presidium…Now, they realize the total unworthiness of Medvedev and the absurdity of pinning any hopes on him.”

Piontkosvky charges that the liberals are unable to suggest any better course of action than to plead their case to the Czar.

The point is that such comments by prominent Russian analysts seem to underline the myth of Medvedev challenging Putin-or of Medvedev’s ability to do so even if he chose to.