Russia

Medvedev's First Year

Is the Russian president steering his country on a liberal course?

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May 7 marked the first anniversary of Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration as President of Russia. It is a strange anniversary of a strange presidency with a murky past, present, and future—one that may yet turn out to be either a fascinating chapter in Russian history or a sadly farcical interlude.

For now, it is not even clear that the word "President" can be applied to Medvedev without sarcastic quotation marks. A longtime aide to Vladimir Putin, Medvedev became his handpicked successor when Putin bowed to the Russian constitution which limited him to two presidential terms. In his acceptance speech, candidate Medvedev promised to appoint Putin as prime minister to ensure continuity of power. The general assumption was that, after "winning" a fixed election, he would be a figurehead—and perhaps would soon step down and cede the presidency back to Putin (who would be first in line as prime minister).

But there was cautious optimism too. Unlike most Putin cronies, Medvedev, a former law professor, did not have a background in the state security services. Despite his obscurity, he had a somewhat "liberal" reputation, perhaps because he was a known hard rock fan and Internet user. Some critics of Putin's authoritarianism were heartened by Medvedev's observation in a campaign speech that "freedom is better than non-freedom."

After Medvedev took office, political repression continued unabated. The war in Georgia, accompanied by a surge of anti-Western propaganda, seemed to show that Putinism was alive and well.

Yet this year, there have been intriguing signs that Medvedev may be emerging as his own man—and perhaps starting to steer Russia on a more liberal course.

Most significantly, a law proposed by Putin's government in late 2008 which would have expanded the definition of treason—opening the door to criminal charges for political dissent—has been shelved, reportedly due to the efforts of parliament members close to Medvedev.

The other signals have been mostly symbolic, such as the appointment of several outspoken critics of the Putin regime to the presidential council on human rights (an advisory body with no power) and a few other overtures to liberals. In January, after a prominent human rights attorney and a young female journalist were fatally shot on a Moscow street, Medvedev met with the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, where the slain journalist had worked. During the conversation, he not only expressed regrets but told the editor, Dmitry Muratov, that his newspaper performed an important function by criticizing the government.

Last month, Medvedev followed this with a lengthy interview to Novaya Gazeta—his first interview to the domestic print media—in which, among other things, he chided officials who ban peaceful protest rallies and marches. And recently, in his first post on his blog (yes, Medvedev has started a blog) he spoke out against censorship on the Internet. All this is in stark contrast to Putin's undisguised hostility toward criticism and dissent.

A sign of a "Moscow spring" could also be seen in last month's release of Svetlana Bakhmina, a former lawyer for the Yukos oil company whose owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was targeted by the Putin regime because of his ties to the opposition. Bakhmina, who became the focus of a campaign for clemency last year, is the first Putin-era political prisoner to have been freed.

Yet, if there is a "Medvedev thaw," it is a timid and fitful warming with many cold snaps.

Protest rallies are still broken up or relegated to less visible venues. Television remains tightly controlled by the government; human rights activists are still harassed. Bakhmina did not get a presidential pardon—demanded in a petition signed by nearly 100,000 people, which Medvedev never acknowledged—but an early release to which she was entitled by law, and which she had previously been wrongly denied. Meanwhile, Khodorkovsky is in the dock again, in a travesty of a case that could land him in prison for many more years.

While Medvedev has moved to ease restrictions imposed in the Putin years on political participation by minority parties, these changes seem intended mainly to create a Potemkin opposition. The recent boisterous mayoral election in Sochi, the future Olympic site—which Medvedev praised with a straight face, in his Novaya Gazeta interview, as a "full-fledged political contest"—was blatantly rigged: The challengers to the pro-government were vilified in the local media and denied advertising, and there is credible evidence of outright fraud.

So far, the difference between Medvedev and Putin is mainly a matter of style and tone. Will style become substance? Could Medvedev be a genuine reformer who must tread carefully because he is still hobbled by the presence of Putin and his faction? Is he an ambitious man who wants to free himself from his mentor's shadow, and prepare the ground for a second term, by using a mostly cosmetic liberalism to build a power base? Will the rumored discord in the Putin/Medvedev "tandem" become a full-scale war of Kremlin "clans"? Or is Medvedev playing "good cop" to Putin's "bad cop," primarily for Western consumption?

"Only time will tell" may be the tritest of conclusions. But in this case, it is the only one that seems fitting.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.

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  1. LOL, thats pretty funny dude. Good stuff though!

    RT
    http://www.privacy-web.net.tc

  2. Could someone get rid of this anoying spambot?

  3. Unlike most Putin cronies, Medvedev, a former law professor, did not have a background in the state security services.

    This set up is modus operandi for the former USSR and scarier considering the current power and motives of the FSB. A cheka man behind every puppet. with the puppet of course not being affiliated with the secret services. People are easier to scare and control if they are not a part of the group.

  4. [Waves at Cathy] Happy weekend and happy Mother’s Day tomorrow!

    hmm,

    A cheka man behind every puppet. with the puppet of course not being affiliated with the secret services. People are easier to scare and control if they are not a part of the group.

    Like in the movie Casino! I think it was Casino, with Sharon Stone and Robert DiNero? Squeaky clean front man, etc.

  5. Could someone get rid of this anoying spambot?

    If we get to vote, I am with you.

  6. Oh Anonymity-bot, it’s coming for you, one day you will be raped and eaten by Satan in hell for all eternity! How I long for that day…

  7. DHS,

    Now we have dueling bots. This will either be interesting or annoying. Nothing in between.

  8. I am (unfortunately) old enough to remember when there were people known as “Kremlin-watchers”. They would try to figure out whether the “reformers” (e.g., Kosygin, Mikoyan) or the “hard-liners” (e.g., Brezhnev, Andropov) in the Soviet government were gaining or losing power.

    The types of rhetoric used in published speeches was analyzed, along with the relative physical positions of the politburo at public events, along with Tammany Hall elements such as who-knew-who from way back when.

    As I read this article, it reminded me of those I read some twenty-odd years ago.

  9. BakedPenguin,

    That is one of the things Condi Rice used to do. If things get worse in Russia that may give her a leg up in the 2012 Republican Primary – if she wants the job of course.

  10. “Now we have dueling bots. This will either be interesting or annoying. Nothing in between.”

    Duelings bots!! When I hear about dueling bots I think of electronics shows where robots with chainsaws and other dangerous implements are competing in some odd death match.

  11. I wonder what it is about Russia and tyrants. They just can’t seem to get away from them, even going way back into their earliest history. Maybe it’s something in the water?

  12. Justen, it’s just that they have to make big trouble for moose and squirrel.

  13. The general assumption was that, after “winning” a fixed election

    I would bet that Medvedev’s election was pretty above board, all things considered.

    First, Putin and his party were fairly popular; people like facism as long as they’re ‘winning’. Less tendentiously, Putin’s party could ask ‘are you better off than you were eight years ago’ and get an honest ‘yes’ answer from a majority of the populace. It’s hard to lose an election when you have that at your back (and hard to win one when you don’t)

    And the election was something like 60% for Putin’s party 20% for another allied party and 20% for everyone else. No doubt shenanigans occurred – they always do – but a real ‘rigged’ election normally has numbers north of 90% not 60% for the incumbent person or party.

  14. Has another month gone by so soon? It must have since we have another anti-Russia article by Ekaterina Jung (alias Cathy Young) in Reason.

    The only actions that Ekaterina seems to like about Russia is when corrupt officials manage to arrange the selling of Russia resources and companies at knock down prices to thieves like Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

    The good old days of Russia seems to be to Ms Jung are those heady days after the Communist revolution when the wealth of Russia waslooted by the communists and the Yeltsin days when someone with a few foreign loans and a crooked inside man in the bureaucracy you could buy up entire industries.

    And checking her articles at Reason she seem to be also strangely silent about the looting of America by the bankers in the USA who have managed to use their political power in the USA to get their debts dumped onto the taxpayers. Seems that looting by insider connected crooks is something Ms Jung has a soft spot for.

  15. Kindle2 is old news KindleDX is the Next Big Thing. And it is BIGGER!

    Thanks, Amazon, for hijacking our new banner.

    DJF,

    If you are looking for the old like Communists who love the new Soviets Russians, I am sure there is a web collective full of fellow travelers for you to cuddle with.

    And checking her articles at Reason she seem to be also strangely silent about the looting of America by the bankers in the USA who have managed to use their political power in the USA to get their debts dumped onto the taxpayers.

    Your scroll function must be broken, or you are just a troll. This brief departure from the government dumping money into crazy schemes and forcing banks to surrender corporate control to Barry & Co. is quite welcome for some of us.

    The outrage of your government buddies taking over corporate America, along with our dislike of rent-seeking businesses and influence selling/renting politicians will be back with a vengeance on Monday morning.

  16. I don’t remember Casino. But the Russian government has essential reverted back to the former USSR without the communist ideology driving the secret police. Now they are just thugs.

    Russian’s have always loved strong leaders. You’re talking about a people that still like Stalin. Trying to understand it takes copious amounts of vodka, pickles, and some salted fish. For some real fun get some Russians living in the US and some visiting from Russia and ask who like Putin. Then hide in the corner.

    Nothing is above board in Russia.

  17. You’re talking about a people that still like Stalin.

    Yea, one of them just showed up at 4:33.

    Hi Suki! Sorry for missing your comment earlier.

    hmm, I think she is talking about how the “mob” always got clean front men for their casinos, for ownership and licensing, but the mob guys really ran everything. Just like Russia today.

  18. BP-

    Ah, yes. Reading and listening to the Kremlinologists. Hedrick Smith, formerly of the N.Y. Times and author of The Russians (circa 1980) and now with PBS, Dmitri Simes, Brezhinsky et al.

  19. J.T.-

    You would think that part of being a presidential candidate as squeaky clean front man should include no birth certificate issues.

  20. Wasn’t there some big apologist book to Stalin a couple of years ago? Letters FDR wrote or something.

  21. You would think that part of being a presidential candidate as squeaky clean front man should include no birth certificate issues.

    I believe the only issue with our current president is in the mind of the hay makers.

  22. I believe the only issue birth certificate with our current president is in the mind of the hay makers.

    Hope that makes it more clear.

  23. Put birth certificate before issue. I am about to give up.

  24. John Tagliaferro writes

    “””””””If you are looking for the old like Communists who love the new Soviets Russians, I am sure there is a web collective full of fellow travelers for you to cuddle with.””””””””

    All I have to do is read Ekaterina Jung (alias Cathy Young) in Reason, she is constantly praising the protests against Putin, those protests are largely done by the Communist Party of Russia. Go look at the pictures of these protests, they are the ones carrying the red hammer and sickle flags

    “””Your scroll function must be broken, or you are just a troll.”””

    My scroll function works great, show me where Ekaterina Jung writes any article about the bankers bailout.

    https://www.reason.com/contrib/show/140.html

    “””””””This brief departure from the government dumping money into crazy schemes and forcing banks to surrender corporate control to Barry & Co. is quite welcome for some of us.””””””””

    The crazy schemes is the Bankers schemes where the borrowed short term and lent long term $ trillions so they could collect billons in fees and now the people and corporations they lent to can’t pay them back so the taxpayer is forced to pay them back And there is no surrender of the bankers power, the Federal Reserve is a bankers cartel, owned and run by the banks. Barry and Geithner, just like Bush and Paulson before them are just doing what they are told too do, bail out the bankers

  25. DJF,

    How quaint! You make a ‘nasty’ little name for the Reason employee whom you do not like her anti-Communist angle (guss you don’t know that is most of us here) and you echo your same senseless crap! BRAVO TO YOU MISS!

    Your ever well functioning scroll gadget scrolled right past:
    this
    “https://www.reason.com/blog/show/133390.html”>this
    this
    this
    this

    (there reason biotches [Please limit the number of links in your comment to five or fewer.] that is five.)

    Not just about banking either Miss Communist. Bend over, let Joe drive.

    Have fun in your fear.

  26. You can do HTML like that in the H&R comments? Sweet.

  27. Shorter DJF: Why are you writing about that, when you should be writing about this.

    Good thing I’m not around any Vodka right now, or I’d be so drunk…

  28. How much of the optimism granted to Medvedev was based on his experience teaching law? And who were these optimists?

    We gotta get them together with John Yoo

  29. Come on, what a waste of bits and bytes.

    He is a front man. You look for change in the fact that he said he was sorry for the gunning down of a journalist in the street? He said he was sorry, not he would get the perp or whatever. Because he was behind it.

    This is an old story, no change from Chicago mob tactics. They gun down or blow up the opposition, and then send flowers and help out the widow. Gangsters are gangsters. Just because they claim to be political doesn’t change that. Look at Obama – a gangster for the bankers and Soros. Or do you thing the SEIU and ACORN are on the up and up? Come on.

  30. All I want to know is, do Russian trains run on time?

  31. P Brooks:

    Yes, and everyone is so afraid they pay the fare, not just the old and crippled (the ones who cannot run) like in Holland.

  32. APOG, P Brooks and others. LONEWACKO THE NOVEL lives!

    If SugarFree has not contacted you yet, he is letting me and John host it on SukiProject.

    Suki 😉

  33. DHSTIAT – Things will get worse. You can’t pull the shenanigans Obama is pulling and not have things get worse. When inflation gets to 12% annually, and he appoints zombie Arthur Burns to chair the Fed, you’ll know he’s done.

    Episiarch – I had a Russian girlfriend for a while, and tried over and over to get her to say “moose and squirrel”. She refused, because she thought I was trying to get her to say something dirty. Finally, one day we were riding on a bike trail, and she joked about bears and deers [sic] coming out of the woods. I said we should be more worried about moose and squirrel. “Moose and squirrel?”

    libertymike – it’s sad how much of Smith’s The Russians remains relevant today.

  34. @DJF

    “constantly praising the protests against Putin, those protests are largely done by the Communist Party of Russia. Go look at the pictures of these protests, they are the ones carrying the red hammer and sickle flags”

    Yep agreed whilst Forward Russia are authoritarian wankers the opposition are terrible

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_legislative_election,_2007#Official_results

    Forward Russia average on 60 odd percent

    The people of come in second are the Commies on 10 ish percent

    and a nationalist party on about the same

    Forward Russia are the best of a bad bunch,

    democracy isn’t gonna flourish there till they get some sensible opposition parties

  35. LONEWACKO THE NOVEL lives!

    No offense, but why would anyone take the time to read it? Or write it, for that matter.

  36. So the bit about Medvedev being Putin’s dentist was just a joke?

  37. All I want to know is, do Russian trains run on time?

    In Putin’s Russia, you pull train!

  38. Thank you for the nice article, Wilsonian/Feminist/Globalist libertarian lady.

  39. Justen wrote, “I wonder what it is about Russia and tyrants. They just can’t seem to get away from them, even going way back into their earliest history. Maybe it’s something in the water?”

    What happens to a country where the thinking sector is eliminated, as it was during and after the Russian Revolution? Thugs take control and, in the absence of thought-driven dissent and criticism, can thrive. Assuming that intelligence is largely a genetic trait that is inherited, one can easily envision the thug mentality that seems to control Russia today.

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