Perhaps the best commentary on the news that Vladimir Putin will return as president of Russia next year, with placeholder-in-chief Dmitry Medvedev stepping aside for his longtime mentor, was offered in a caustic satirical poem in the three-times-a-week independent paper Novaya Gazeta by maverick writer Dmitry Bykov. Bykov recalled that, some two years ago, when interviewing think tank president Igor Yurgens—a leading drumbeater for Medvedev as Russia’s great liberal hope—he bet Yurgens a case of cognac that Putin would retake the presidency in 2012. In retrospect, he wrote, the outcome seems so obvious and the hopes pinned on Medvedev so flimsy that a pack of raisins would have been a fairer bet.

The announcement, made on September 24 at a convention of the ruling United Russia party, was a carefully scripted political farce. First, Putin nominated Medvedev to head the list of United Russia candidates in December’s parliamentary elections; then Medvedev urged the convention to support Putin’s candidacy for president in March; and, after a standing ovation, Putin returned to the podium to say that after his victory, Medvedev would take over Putin’s own current post of prime minister.

While Putin can now reign at least a dozen more years, his fortunes are far from certain. In the absence of serious reform, lower oil prices would spell disaster for Russia’s economy and its budget. Even without such a drop, Russia faces growing poverty—according to official statistics, two million people have slipped below the poverty line in the past year—and unavoidable cuts in social benefits. (Some believe Prime Minister Medvedev is meant to be the designated scapegoat for these unpopular measures.)

What this means for the United States and its relationship with Russia also depends on a multitude of shifting factors. True, Putin has dabbled in coarse invective against Western and American perfidy, while Medvedev tends to talk a more pro-Western line. Yet the famous “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations has meant precious little in practice.

Moscow has continued to play enabler to the odious regime in Tehran and make a bogeyman of U.S. missile defense plans in Europe. Even its aid for American efforts in Afghanistan, which are important to Russia’s own interests, has been offset by moves to sabotage U.S. cooperation with neighboring states such as Kazakhstan. Some Russian commentators who have no love for Putin have opined that his return to the presidency is a good thing because it strips away naïve illusions about the nature of the Kremlin regime. They were referring to the illusions of Russian liberals, but perhaps some American foreign policymakers are in the same boat.

Whatever lies ahead, the obituary of the Medvedev “presidency” can already be written. The Kremlin reshuffle ends the nearly four-year debate on who really rules Russia and whether the phrase “President Medvedev” will ever be more than

a punchline.

The joke, of course, is on the Russian political system: The ostensible point of the Medvedev interlude was to demonstrate that the new Russia was a free and open society with a democratic transfer of power. In the final year of Putin’s second term as president, there was rampant speculation that he would either seek a third term in violation of the Russian constitution or hand over his seat to a chosen heir. At a February 2007 press conference, Putin pointedly stated, “There won’t be any heir, there will be candidates for president.”

A little over a year later, Russians voted for former deputy premier Medvedev, a Putin protégé whose first act upon accepting the nomination was to promise to appoint Putin as prime minister. Still, many observers, Russian and Western alike, eagerly searched for signs that Medvedev might reverse the country’s Putin-era slide toward authoritarianism. If nothing else, he did not have the KGB background Putin shared with most of his inner circle, and also seemed to lack Putin’s penchant for Soviet nostalgia. During the campaign, Medvedev, who had once taught law, spoke of securing the rule of law as Russia’s highest priority and asserted that politics should be guided by the principle that freedom is better than unfreedom.T

Yet by the time Medvedev took office in May 2008, it was clear that Putin—who had once testily informed reporters that he would leave with no prodding when his term was up—had no intention of going anywhere. Medvedev’s first 100 days ended with the Russia-Georgia war, during which Putin was unmistakably the man in charge: He was seen on television giving his putative boss “suggestions,” which the president duly implemented.

In November 2008, in his first presidential address to the Duma, Medvedev outlined a series of political reforms that amounted to inconsequential tinkering and one big change: a constitutional amendment extending the president’s term in office from four years to six. The amendment, promptly ratified, was widely perceived as tailor-made for Putin’s return. Meanwhile, both Putin and Medvedev consistently remained coy on the subject of 2012, often suggesting that they would reach a mutual agreement on which one of them would run.

Nevertheless, hope for a “Medvedev thaw” lived on, and its adherents watched for any sign that Medvedev was different. In some ways, he was—in style, at least. He did not mock the opposition as jackals scrounging around foreign embassies, or treat the independent media as the enemy. He gave a much-publicized interview to Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper sharply critical of the Kremlin. After activist and government critic Natalia Estemirova was killed in Chechnya in July 2009, Medvedev praised her as a brave if harsh truth-teller: “That’s the value of human rights activists, even if they are inconvenient and irritating to the government.” It was a stark contrast to Putin’s reaction to the 2006 murder of gadfly reporter Anna Politkovskaya, whom he dismissed as a troublemaker with “minimal influence.”

Whether this stylistic improvement translated into substance is debatable at best. Under the Putin-Medvedev “tandem,” censorship in the state-controlled media was not eased; protests were still met with often brutal crackdowns (even a rally to honor Estemirova’s memory was broken up by riot police because the turnout exceeded the estimate in the organizers’ application for a permit); opposition members trying to run for office still faced harassment and sabotage. Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed in 2003 after challenging Putin too boldly, was tried again on ludicrous charges of stealing the oil produced by his own company, convicted, and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.

Still, Medvedev did block two particularly hideous proposed laws, backed by the Putin-led government, that would have tightened restrictions on public protests and allowed dissenters to be prosecuted on vague charges of treason. These modest accomplishments quickly fanned rumors of a growing rift in the Putin-Medvedev “tandem.” So did public statements by some Medvedev advisers such as Yurgens, who openly assailed Putin as an obstacle to progress and argued that Medvedev needed a second term to spearhead the much-needed modernization of Russia’s economy and its judicial and political system. The “rift” became a spreading meme: In February 2009, a lengthy piece in the Washington Post opened with the assertion that Medvedev had “begun to shed his image as the obedient sidekick of his powerful predecessor.”

A couple of times, the “sidekick” even criticized his patron, though not by name. A particularly dramatic disagreement emerged last March over the West’s intervention in Libya. While talking to workers at a factory, Putin lambasted the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing action against the Qaddafi regime as a “medieval crusade.” Hours later, Medvedev spoke out to agree with the resolution and urge “everyone” commenting on the events to be “extremely careful” and refrain from using charged language such as “crusades.”

This mild slap set off a new wave of speculation. Even some Russian commentators who had previously dismissed talk of a Putin-Medvedev split as “agitprop,” such as columnist Dmitry Shusharin, were now inclined to take it seriously. Others, more cynical, suspected that Putin and Medvedev were simply playing to different audiences: Medvedev to the West, Putin to domestic nationalists and Russia’s friends in the Arab world.

Today, some Russian political analysts, such as journalist Yulia Latynina, argue that Medvedev was not allowed to stay on as frontman for another term because he had started to spread his wings and ceased to be a reliable puppet. Could it be that the pathetic Medvedev really had intended to challenge Putin’s neoautocratic regime but failed for lack of a power base? Or was he merely, as Carnegie Endowment senior associate Lilia Shevtsova argues in Novaya Gazeta, meekly fulfilling his role as a one-man Potemkin village?

Perhaps someday, memoirs by Kremlin insiders will tell the tale. Meanwhile, in some quarters, hope really does spring eternal: Yurgens, who asserted less than a month ago that a second Medvedev term was a certainty, is now claiming that Medvedev will still be able to pursue a reformist course as prime minister. No word on whether he intends to send Bykov that case of cognac.

Cathy Young is a columnist for and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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