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.