IT ALL SEEMS so familiar. Whenever the West expresses optimism about the advent of a Europeanized Russian "liberal" as the head of state, there's a good chance reference will be made to Peter the Great, the man credited with dragging Russia out of the dark ages and founding the pre-Soviet empire. An entire history of social and political thought used to rest upon this czar who whose very name was a synecdoche for Russian glory (Stalin's famous worship of Ivan the Terrible notwithstanding).
Peter founded the city that bears his name as a "window into Europe," created the country's first standing army and navy for purposes of warring with Sweden, and converted the pedigreed nobility, or mestnichestvo, into a bureaucratic military class with an open enrollment policy. For this, he became an icon of promise and reform to the 19th century intelligentsia, which tended to downplay his more dubious accomplishments, like merging slavery and serfdom in order to expand the Russian tax base, establishing the internal passport system, one of Lenin's main grievances with the ancien regime (before the Soviet one restored it), consolidating a hyper-loyalist cadre of czarist nomenklatura known as "Peter's Fledglings," nationalizing the incipient state industry, bringing the Orthodox Church under his all-commanding sway, overseeing a 25 percent drop in the population during his 44 year reign, and, most perilously of all, enacting the Law of Succession. This abolished primogeniture in the dynasty and gave the sitting czar complete freedom to choose his heir. Court intrigue and assassinations were the result of this disastrous policy, which not a few historians have seen as the first domino to fall before the revolution 200 years later.
As for Peter's enlightened opinion of his subjects, he was given to statements like these: "Our people are like children, who would never of their own accord decide to learn, who would never take up the alphabet without being compelled to do so by their teacher, who would at first feel despondent. But later, when they have finished their studies, they are grateful for having been made to go through them. This is evident today: has not everything been achieved under constraint?"
Understanding this duality in the Russian tradition, the fusion of the forward-looking technocrat with the hidebound authoritarian, is crucial in assessing today's Russia, particularly in light of the fact that the new law of succession is really more of a law of suspended animation. On Monday came the news the next president will be Dmitry Medvedev. A 42 year-old lawyer and academic from St. Petersburg, Medvedev, now a deputy prime minister, is conspicuous in the Kremlin for being one of the only advisors to Vladimir Putin not moored to the vast KGB-FSB security apparatus. His appointment--which is what Putin's endorsement of Medvedev amounts to--comes as a relief to foreign investors who deem his pro-market orientation as a sign that "state capitalism" is on the wane, never mind that Medvedev is also the current chairman of Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company responsible for 20 percent of the world's natural gas supply.
Andreas Umland, a foreign affairs analyst, writes in the Washington Post that Medvedev, who repudiated Communism and backed perestroika, represents a "serious chance to embark anew on a course of political liberalization and democratization." The Times of London praises his reputation as a "consensus-builder" and takes at face value that his self-proclaimed disposition on international relations is "European" (always a byword, in Russian terms, for a milquetoast). And the Guardian, which just weeks ago compared Putin to Stalin, strikes the common chord that Medvedev is viewed as a "liberal" and--here the contrastive standard is almost amusingly low--"less of a hawk" than Sergei Ivanov, another deputy prime minister and former defense minister who, up until yesterday, was Medvedev's main rival for the presidency.
Such optimism, however, is not borne out by Medvedev's unimpressive and toadying history. (His only distinguishing characteristic is a fondness for heavy metal; he's a collector of original Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath records.) Though not a silovik, he is in many ways more of a harbinger of strengthening Russian autocracy given his status as a behind-the-scenes policy wonk who owes his political rise exclusively to his boss. It's always the quiet ones you have to look out for
In 1991 Medvedev served as a legal expert to the Committee for External Relations in the office of St. Petersburg's first democratically elected mayor Anatoly Sobchak, under whom both men had studied law. (Putin was then the head of the committee). In one of the series of revealing interviews collected in the book First Person, a handy resource on Putin's psychology, the then newly-elected president confessed to feeling an "abstract category-comradeship" with three people in his life: Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev, now the FSB director, and Medvedev. The latter was entrusted with orchestrating Putin's 2000 election campaign, for which he earned the Gazprom appointment a year later--a position he maintained despite also being named the president's chief of staff in 2003 and then deputy prime minister in a much-scrutinized cabinet shakeup in 2005. This was the same year, you'll recall, that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was railroaded through a farcical "trial" on the pretext of tax evasion, sent to Siberia, and had the assets of his multi-billion dollar petroleum concern Yukos absorbed by the state. On this occasion, Medvedev, who had been in charge of Priority National Projects geared towards domestic reforms, including one of the Russian judiciary, said that the courts were "genuinely independent." As for other renewal projects in the areas of health care, housing and education that Medvedev has spearheaded, the majority of Russians considers them failures, projects whose funds were stolen by corrupt government officials. (It hardly helps that Medvedev thinks corruption disappears in totalitarian countries.) Also, the birthrate continues to plummet despite his efforts to correct the "demographic problem."
As even his own Leningrad State University advisor phrased it, Medvedev sees Putin as an "older brother" and there seems to be little if any sibling rivalry between them. Consider that Medvedev, who will become the youngest leader of Russia since Nicholas II, wasted not a moment of his coronation before supplicating Putin to do what everyone suspected he would do anyway and become the next prime minister: "I appeal to him with a request to give his agreement in principle to head the Russian government after the election of the new president of our country." Putin will of course accept the assignment he all but drafted for himself, counting on one of three possible outcomes in the forthcoming administration, which will glide into office in March.
The first is that his underling will simply remain just that, arrogating all de facto presidential powers to the prime minister, including those pertaining to foreign and military affairs, in which case, Medvedev's dovish outlook is moot. Leave it to the 21st century Communist to tell it like it is: "Medvedev is insecure, weak. Putin can have full control over him," said senior party official Viktor Ilyukhin.
There is also the possibility that he will revise the constitution to accord the prime minister more de jure power, which can easily be done with United Russia's 70 percent control of the ratifying body of legislators. The problem with this scenario is that it depends on just how slavish Medvedev will be to Putin once he's legally in charge of the country. Bundled into the Western hopefulness of his liberalizing tendency is that he is also a Khrushchev-type figure: someone who has played the game of sycophant in order to inherit the throne and undo the damage of his predecessor. As Yevgeny Volk, the Moscow director of the Heritage Foundation recently said, "Whether he maintains his absolute loyalty to Putin or starts to change, that's a very serious question. Because in politics, there cannot be absolutely loyalty. Situations change, promises are broken. People in power also change."
Perhaps, although Medvedev's only flicker of disapproval with the status quo concerns the term sovereign democracy, which was coined by Vladislav Surkov to describe the strong centralized Russian state and was thoroughly embraced by the glowering architect of it. As a euphemism, sovereign democracy ranks right up there with Lenin's democratic centralism, and so it is, on the surface, encouraging that Medvedev finds the term counterproductive and transparent as a public relations gambit aimed toward winning dupes and apologists in the West. However, he's less bold outside of the field of semantics. The New York Times quotes him as saying, "Any seeker of this position should indicate that if he is elected, he will spoil nothing" of what Putin has insituted. He also told foreign journalists last month that:
"A parliamentary republic--this is my personal opinion--is not acceptable in Russia, either today or in [the] future. Probably, in 200 or 300 years when the idea of democracy is different and we can express our will without leaving our homes, when everything is different as to the current situation, the model we are having in Russia, the socioeconomic model is compatible with the parliamentary democracy. Russia should develop the same way as a number of major countries with strong presidential power."
So the dim prospect that Medvedev is a late-blooming champion of de-Putinization brings us to the other two scenarios that exist for keeping him in check. Unless he purges the cabinet, he will find himself surrounded by the Kremlin "uncles" who aggressively jockey for the coveted spot as second-in-command--to Putin. Medvedev has gone on record as being dismissive of factions or intrigue in the executive: "[I]f you ask me if it is reflected in our work, and moreover, in state decisions, I can firmly answer--no." However, there is no question that the ex-secret policemen who, like their current paymaster, matured in the cask of Andropov's KGB and now masquerade as public servants, will view him as an impotent steward and nothing else. These include Igor Sechin, first deputy chief of the Russian presidential administration and the chairman of Gazprom's sister oil monopoly Rosneft, also the presumed pack leader of the siloviki; Sergei Chemestov, the head of the state defense contractor Rosoboronexport; Nikolai Patrushev; and Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Federal Antinarcotics Service. Garry Kasparov has called Medvedev's selection a "defeat for the Igor Sechin group," which also underscores its inherent danger if that group isn't removed. In the event of a severe power struggle that effectively hobbles the presidency, Prime Minister Putin has the right, under the constitution, to impeach Medvedev with a two-thirds majority vote in the Duma, He can then return to the post himself.
The other scenario is that economy suffers, and so too does the man in charge. Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economist, has limned in the Moscow Times two ways this can happen in the coming months: either oil prices remain high and inflation rises, leading to higher consumer prices (food prices rose an ominous 19 percent over the past year) and more workers' strikes, or Russia's oil bubble bursts and everything goes south:
Either way, the new president is not likely to face such a glowing economic landscape when he assumes office. Whether Medvedev harbors liberal economic views will not matter, since an economic downturn is not the time to introduce reforms--especially not in Russia. His most likely response will be price controls and greater government interference in the private sector, which has already been done to combat inflationary pressures this year.
In the event that this does indeed happen, Putin will have performed his greatest trick yet: Convincing the Russian people that it didn't happen under his watch and that the true father of the nation is ready to come back and restore the good old days.
Michael Weiss is associate editor at Jewcy magazine.