Medvedev’s First Year Ends with Denials of the Need for Change

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 45

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Last week marked a year since Dmitry Medvedev was elected Russia’s third president, but he has few reasons to be satisfied with this start. There is nothing resembling a "Medvedev team" in the Kremlin, and 86 percent of the respondents in a special Levada Center opinion poll believe that he is continuing Putin’s policies (compared with 76 percent a year ago), and 87 percent are certain that Putin has maintained his political influence (, February 27). Medvedev has cultivated the image of an intelligent and composed partner in the experimental "tandem" of leadership and has not made a single mistake that would have upset his prime minister’s pedaling and steering.

This smooth performance would have been perfect in the original plan enacted by Putin in December 2007, but the pattern of stability and growth that had appeared so reliable was shattered by the arrival of a complex disaster that is neutrally called a "crisis." Regional and local elections staged across the Russian Federation last week showed that the "technologies" of managing the electorate’s behavior were useless against rising discontent (Nezavisimaya gazeta,, March 2). Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration and the main ideologist of "Putinism," argued angrily that the political system remained entirely functional; but even among bureaucratic masses, hope that a crisis of such depth might simply pass is quickly evaporating (Kommersant, March 3; Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 6).

The economy keeps making news that destroys official estimates of the possible scale of the recession. The target figure for unemployment by the end of 2009 was revised last week from 2.2 to 2.8 million, while the total number of jobless (of which barely a third are registered) could increase from the current 6.1 million to 8.5 to 9 million (RBC Daily, March 5). Inflation has reached 4.1 percent since the beginning of the year alone, so the forecast has been "unofficially" raised from 13 percent to 15 percent (Vedomosti, March 6). Experts argue that unprecedented shrinking of personal savings over the last three months will lead to a deep and painful drop in consumption and a sharp contraction in retail sales (Vedomosti, March 5). The authorities, nevertheless, keep insisting that the anti-crisis policies are already bearing fruit and that the stabilization of the ruble will soon revive the financial system (, March 5). This macroeconomic helplessness goes hand in hand with the urge to perform "manual control," so Putin tours the provinces and enterprises issuing directives about expanding dysfunctional state corporations (Kommersant, March 7).

Medvedev is trying to present himself as a flexible and open-minded leader, who focuses on ways of taking advantage of the crisis to modernize the country and who is not hostile to liberalizing the political system. His stance on strengthening the integrity of the judicial system has never been that convincing, but what will set a crucial test for the much-spoken-about "rule of law" is the new trial for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev that has opened in Moscow exactly at the beginning of year two of the "tandem" ride. Khodorkovsky and Platon were arrested in 2003 for some ridiculously petty violations of the old tax code, found guilty, and sent to labor camps in Siberia, while Yukos—the largest Russian oil company, owned by Khodorkovsky—was expropriated and divided between Rosneft and Gazprom. That rigged trial marked a major watershed in Putin’s presidency and the rise of the siloviki, a network of bureaucrats and entrepreneurs with a background in the KGB and other special services (Moskovskiy komsomolets, Novaya gazeta, March 6).

Now a new criminal case has been prepared, and this high-publicity trial is probably the last thing Medvedev needs. He most likely takes his own liberal rhetoric seriously and is looking forward to his first meeting with President Barack Obama but is not ready to confront the mob of true Putinists cheering the second lynching of Khodorkovsky and Platon or to challenge Putin’s personal vindictiveness (Echo Moscow, March 6;, February 19). The predetermined verdict would implicate Medvedev in a gross perversion of justice similar to Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s, and it is symbolic that last week also marked the 56th anniversary of the death of the tyrant who is still very much present in the Russian collective psyche and polity (, March 5).

This preplanned triumph of the siloviki, split into feuding clans though they may be, could have serious implications for Russia’s muddling through the catastrophic recession. The policy of strengthening state control over key industries and banks might be pursued to the detriment of the market economy; but, perhaps more significantly, the train of thought that only a war would open a way out of this global crisis could gather dangerous momentum (, February 24). The militaristic jingoism exploded last August because of the war with Georgia, and Medvedev had to embrace it in order to rescue his presidency, but then he tried to downplay the battle cry as the economic calamity required sober responses. It is exactly his inability to deliver these responses that now provides an impetus for the "tough guys" to start moving.

It is increasingly clear that the happy days of "petro-prosperity" are gone for good and that no restoration of the political system based on rent-distribution will happen at the as yet indiscernible end of the turmoil. It is entirely rational to suggest that in order to set the country on the track to recovery, Medvedev needs to ease Putin out of the crucial position of Prime Minister and sack his notoriously incompetent lieutenants like Sergei Ivanov and Igor Sechin (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 6). Such prospects, however, remain in the "necessary-but-impossible" category and not solely because the corrupt siloviki cannot afford to relinquish their grasp on power and can always resort to means that no liberal is ready to contemplate. The key issue is that the society, disappointed yet again by the promises of a free lunch and all-included vacation, is easily tempted to punish "oligarchs" and "monetarists" ministers but does not see much value in freedom and liberty. A breakthrough is set to happen before Medvedev’s second year is over, but it might turn out to be a breakdown.