Give Medvedev a Chance

Article excerpt

Dmitri Medvedev's election to the Russian presidency with 70 percent of the vote was as lopsided as it was pre-arranged. It seems clear that he will govern in concert with a United Russia Duma majority under a very popular Putin ministry. The one conventional view of this election that has been accurate is that the result represents the continuation of Putinism, Russia's populist authoritarian nationalist regime organized around the security services and the state-owned oil companies.

Many Western observers see only one-party rule and the emergence of an antagonistic, anti-Western Russian state, but there is now an opportunity for Washington to begin repairing relations frayed by years of our provocation and neglect. Recognizing that Russian politics cannot be understood through clumsy labels like "pro-Western" and "neo-Soviet" is vital, and Medvedev offers a perfect case for why we must move beyond these pejorative and meaningless categories.

Before being anointed as Putin's successor, Medvedev was an old St. Petersburg crony. He served as the Russian president's chief of staff and deputy prime minister. Since 2002, he has also been chairman of the state-run oil and gas firm, Gazprom, one of the nation's main sources of revenue and a key element of its economic leverage over other European states that depend on Russian energy. The West can expect a continuation of Putin's policy of encouraging foreign investment and exploiting high energy prices to wield influence through Russian energy exports.

Trained as a lawyer and lacking the personal ties to Russia's secret services that so defined Putin's career, Medvedev has shown an interest in strengthening property rights and has expressed dissatisfaction with the limits of the rule of law. "Russia is the country of legal nihilism," he declared in January. As part of the rising generation of Russian leaders, Medvedev, 42, seems to have little preoccupation with Soviet nostalgia. Everything in his record to date indicates that he represents the reformist elements of Putinism, but this will not preclude his continuation of the authoritarian tendencies of his predecessor.

Any smart reworking of America's Russia policy will require the next administration not to expect political or legal reforms in the near future, and Washington should not invest Medvedev with the aura of the embattled liberal reformer. In Russia's present political climate, nothing could be more fatal to the success of reform than the West's public embrace. …