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He’s Back

Vladimir Putin, the once and future president of Russia.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By CATHY YOUNG
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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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