Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0

Article excerpt

Abstract: There was a consensus among professional Russia watchers that the rise of Dmitry Medvedev to the Russian presidency would bring no change and that the new president was a puppet completely controlled by his predecessor, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This consensus is proving to be palpably incorrect, as predicted by the author of the article below. A "thaw" in Russia's domestic politics, economics and foreign policy has started. There has been significant liberalization in the style of Russian leadership. There also have been minor changes to the political system with the promise of more, major reforms of key institutions such as the MVD have been initiated, a fight against corruption has begun, and other rule-of-law initatives are being instituted. Likewise, a "reset" in Russian foreign policy is emerging to meet the Obama administration's own "reset" with Moscow.

Keywords: liberalization, Medvedev, Putin, tandem, thaw

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Very few Russia observers have supported the view that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, either alone or in tandem with Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin, intends or will be able to initiate a serious political thaw or "Perestroika 2.0" in the country. The present author, however, has been arguing for nearly two years that the Medvedev-Putin tandem is ushering in a new era of reform and that Putin will very gradually hand power to Medvedev if political stability is preserved. (1) Over time, Medvedev is being unleashed from the confines of the "tandem" (or duumvirate), and could take the lead in launching badly needed economic and political reforms. This does not require a political split of the ruling duumvirate.

Even before Medvedev's inauguration as president, it was clear that a thaw would come during his administration, as various signals, Russian historical precedents and contemporary imperatives discussed further below suggest. A month after the inauguration, I reiterated that in the absence of any unexpected upheavals there would be a political thaw: "Medvedev is on a leash. If he learns to stay on the sidewalk and not wander into the traffic, Putin will gradually lengthen and very gradually remove that leash, fade into the premiership and perhaps leave it in a second Medvedev term. Barring a major jihadist attack, an assassination, or an overly aggressive Western Russia policy, an economic and political thaw will likely develop at the pace with which Medvedev takes control. Such a thaw will be very gradual--like watching an iceberg melt--but it will melt." (2)

This view has been roundly rejected by almost all Western and most native Russia watchers--journalists, analysts, and academics alike. They have argued that Medvedev is nothing more than Putin's puppet, and the tandem no more than a vehicle for Putin to keep his supposedly neo-totalitarian hands on the helm until his return to the presidency in 2012. For example, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, without even waiting for sufficient time to pass or evidence to appear that might mitigate the early signals of a thaw, argued: "Clearly Medvedev either cannot or will not diverge significantly from the path on which Putin set his country in 2000." (3) Daniel Klimmage, in a Freedom House-Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report, claimed Russia would become more authoritarian under the tandem: "The leadership has no discernable desire or incentive to alter its policies." "Expect things to get worse before they get better." The Russian elite "will likely respond by tightening the screws at home, stoking anti-Western sentiment, and provoking conflicts they feel they can exploit." (4) Similar analyses were reiterated across virtually the entire community of what might be called "Rusologists." (5) Except for two defections and a few waiverers, this consensus has held. More recently, my view has been endorsed by a very few analysts. (6)

The claim that a liberalizing thaw has begun cannot be confounded by those who protest that authoritarian excesses persist at this time. …