Elections are supposed to focus on the question of who wins, but Russia makes an exception: President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in early 2004 had no suspense at all. But with the electoral exercise that took place yesterday, March 2, the question was not about “Who?” but rather, “So What?” Massive public support for First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, hand picked by Putin last December as his successor, was never in doubt; however, his qualifications for, and plans to use the vast power bestowed upon the presidential office by the constitution (drafted by President Boris Yeltsin and approved by a slim margin at the referendum in December 1993) remain unknown (Gazeta.ru, February 21).
Medvedev’s political biography provides no clues about his leadership abilities, since for all intents and purposes it is non-existent. Putin arrived in power in 1999 with a rather short resume, but at least it was possible to make something out of his KGB background, the traumatic experience of witnessing the collapse of the Stasi and the GDR, the first-hand involvement in the flimsy deals of early privatization in St. Petersburg, or his short tenure as head of the FSB. Medvedev, in contrast, was Putin’s loyal aide in St. Petersburg and then served in the presidential administration and on Gazprom’s board, but both these courts keep their proceeding hermetically sealed, so no light is shed on the character of the new leader from either source.
The last weeks of the election campaign were supposed to put Medvedev in the spotlight, but the extensive reporting in the mainstream media remained entirely businesslike. His refusal to partake in the debates with other candidates eliminated the chance to see how he keeps his composure under pressure. In the first weeks after presenting Medvedev as the “next man,” Putin appeared ready to step back and grant him an opportunity to establish his credentials. In February, however, the president rushed back to the forefront, leaving Medvedev to perform the supporting role of apprentice. Putin’s “strategic” speech at the State Council on February 8 had far more vision and substance than Medvedev’s presentation of his “platform” in Krasnoyarsk a week later, and Putin’s relaxed and confident performance at the extra-long annual press conference captured so much media attention that Medvedev’s interview with the small-circulation weekly Itogi (February 19) was barely noticed (EDM, February 11, 20).
Medvedev has shown no sign of irritation about being overshadowed in such crucial weeks, but the question about Putin’s motivations in pulling attention so demonstratively to his side is open to interpretations (Ezhednevny zhurnal, February 22; Expert, February 18). Even more puzzling is the question about the reasons for orchestrating these quasi-elections in such a way that they are simultaneously extremely dull and blatantly unfair. In contrast, the last month of the December 2007 parliamentary elections was full of colorful rallies and noisy campaigning, but now it has become clear that the only aim of all that fake enthusiasm was to make sure that the State Duma would continue to play no political role whatsoever. Putin’s embrace guaranteed Medvedev a clean victory in the first round, so it was not necessary to viciously crush the irreconcilable democratic opposition. Nor was there a need to escalate the conflict with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by imposing unacceptable restrictions on its monitoring activities so that the elections had been de facto defined as not meeting the basic democratic criteria well before the votes were even cast (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 28).
This deliberate “Sovietization” of the very un-Soviet process of elevating a young apparatchik to the summit of power while the cultic “national leader” takes one step down deeply undermines the legitimacy of the perverse “two-headed” political system, leaving the voters with the impression that they were forced to participate in an odd and blatant scheme.
Medvedev has stayed on his socially oriented and cautiously liberal message, and his attempt at coining a motto for his presidency – “Liberty is better than non-liberty” – has a distinct Orwellian twist. The point itself is far less trivial in Russia than it might seem to an average European parliamentarian or a U.S. campaign expert; most Russians would consider trading liberty for order and prosperity as a fair deal – it is useful to remember that March 5 will mark only the 55th anniversary of Stalin’s death (Gazeta.ru, February 18; Kommersant-Vlast, February 25; RIA-Novosti, February 29). Reminders about the legacy of Stalinism are too numerous: The British Council was forced to discontinue its activity in Russia, and the European University in St. Petersburg was shut down for alleged fire code violations, while in fact its project on election monitoring was found “unpatriotic.” Journalist Natalya Morar, who investigated the “shadow” financial schemes behind the election campaign, was refused entry into the country despite carrying a perfectly legitimate Russian passport (New Times, February 25).
These small but sticky facts on the ground established by all-pervasive special services create an environment where Medvedev would have to take responsibility for curtailing the civil liberties about which he speaks so eloquently, much the same way as Putin took responsibility for the destruction of the oil company Yukos and the still continuing persecution of its management. Medvedev has tried his best to stay clear of the feuds between warring clans of siloviki and refrained from any hints about how he is going to execute the responsibilities of commander-in-chief. Putin will formally remain in charge for three more months, but following his victory it would be awkward for Medvedev not to express his attitude toward provocative flights of Russian strategic bombers, or even more provocative statements about “brutal force” that Russia could allegedly use if NATO would directly back Kosovar independence. He would have probably preferred to introduce himself to the West as an “enlightened moderate,” but his first task would be to prove himself as a “tough patriot” before the watchful eyes of the uniformed courtiers who can make or break his improbable presidency.