President Dmitry Medvedev has commenced his state visit to France today, and over the next three days he will receive red carpet treatment and dine in style. There is certainly a rich cultural program marking the officially sponsored “Russian year” in France and an opportunity to finalize the controversial deal on selling the modern amphibious assault ship Mistral to the Russian navy (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 27; Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 25). Medvedev, however, has shown little interest in the Mistral affair. The main point for Medvedev is to cultivate his personal ties with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, seeking to build a “special friendship” similar to his mentor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
It was Sarkozy who granted Medvedev his main foreign policy success in restoring relations with the West after the breakdown caused by the Georgian war. The recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was a risky gamble for Medvedev, but Sarkozy brought him in from the cold by organizing a special meeting in Evian and then hosting the EU-Russia summit. That required a tacit acceptance of the violation of the ceasefire agreement that Sarkozy himself had negotiated in Moscow, but he was firmly set on closing that page and moving to “business-better-than-usual.”
The now-proverbial “reset” in relations with the US followed suit in spring 2009, yet its main engine –the negotiations on a new strategic arms control treaty– has lost its driving power and it is not clear, despite the firm promises from both camps, that a compromise is a matter of “technicalities” (www.gazeta.ru, February 25). Medvedev cannot find any particular chemistry with US President Barack Obama, and probably suspects that he is not up to the game in the US-China league. He has also found that the small, but usable, leverage in the “sanctions-incentives” maneuvering around Iran is declining and the only available course is to follow Beijing’s lead, which would not earn him much credit in Washington.
Issues with Obama (who is also demonstratively open to dialogue with the “untouchable” opposition in Moscow) make Sarkozy a much more agreeable partner, but Medvedev clearly needs more than a back-slapping photo-opportunity from this visit. It is exactly two years since his tightly managed election, and he cannot fail to see that his presidency is already slipping down the slope of the second half. Foreign policy has little to do with this diminishing leadership, shaped primarily by the growing foreboding in the bureaucratic apparatus that Putin is set to return to the top job in early 2012. Medvedev is more than a little upset by Putin’s signals that he is “thinking about it,” so in his interview with Paris-Match (February 25) on the eve of the trip, he characterized their interactions in very ambiguous terms: “In any case, so far we have a quite workable union, which, in my opinion, is rather useful for the country.” By February 28, however, these words were changed on the presidential website into a more positive statement: “Our tandem works well” (www.newsru.com, February 25).
Medvedev’s main proposition for making sense out of his presidency is “modernization,” yet he remains ambivalent about providing any content for this ambitious concept. He places emphasis on all sorts of technical innovations, from introducing more efficient light-bulbs to creating a “Silicon Valley” in Moscow oblast where a cluster of research centers and ultra-modern industries would generate creative synergy in producing new technologies (Vedomosti, February 15; Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 24). Presidential directives, however, cannot change the rent-extraction business philosophy even in state-owned companies, while financing the extravaganza like nanotechnologies remains problematic due to planned deficits in the state budget (Vedomosti, February 26). Economic experts and entrepreneurs are in broad agreement that a shift from petro-economics to an innovation-oriented model is possible only through a tangible warming of the investment climate and checking of the predatory instincts within the bureaucracy. Nonetheless, Medvedev remains hesitant in developing the theme of modernizing institutions (Vedomosti, February 15; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 12).
A good place to start is the interior ministry, and the demand for its radical purge has been increasing, perhaps even deliberately encouraged in recent months as the state-controlled media is filled with stories about police brutality, corruption and criminalization. Medvedev has responded to this demand by announcing the reform of the 1,500,000-strong super-structure and firing 17 police generals (Kommersant, February 20; Ekspert, February 22). The reform, however, is quite superficial and it is the same Rashid Nurgaliev, a faithful Putin loyalist, who is due to implement it – and he has promised many times to put this house in order since his appointment as the Interior Minister in 2004 (Novaya Gazeta, February 24).
Medvedev is a product of the system of bureaucratic dominance over the economy and society, and he was brought to the summit of power to perform a largely ceremonial role; the transformative impact of the massive crisis, however, has created a need for real leadership. Putin cannot face the fact that the progressive paralysis of the system of governance is a result of his policy of empowering bureaucracy, and he insists on addressing the erupting problems by “manual control.” Every sign of recovery reduces Medvedev’s resolution to assume real leadership, for which he is so clearly unprepared and which could only be forced upon him by the pressure of court intrigues and public discontent. The latter is slowly building, but the former depends upon the sum total of survival instincts among the crowd of shrewd courtiers. The top level of the bureaucracy has to start taking Medvedev seriously – and here he can take a cue from Sarkozy, who is certainly the quintessential political animal. Instead of wandering in the blind alley of reinventing the European security architecture, the pair could find a quiet moment for plotting a master-stroke that might reinvigorate Medvedev’s “Go-Russia” initiative. It might not be a bad idea, if in that context, the name Khodorkovsky was discussed.