Russia's Tragic Hero

By Matthews, Owen | Newsweek International, October 5, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Russia's Tragic Hero


Matthews, Owen, Newsweek International


Byline: Owen Matthews

Why Dmitry Medvedev will fail.

It's hard to see Dmitry Medvedev as a tragic figure. Russia's president is, at least in theory, one of the world's most powerful men. His demeanor is cheerful; his speeches are refreshingly liberal and increasingly bold in criticizing the new Russian state. But his vision will go nowhere as long as his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, remains the real power in the land.

Consider Medvedev's latest proposals. Published earlier this month on the president's personal blog, the manifesto calls for overhauling Russia's "terrible" and "dysfunctional" economy by weaning it away from its dependence on energy and metals. Medvedev wants to close down unproductive single-industry towns that churn out products no one wants, to create a new tech sector and to invest more in education, to cut bureaucracy, and to encourage Russians to start small businesses, which have been crushed by bribe-taking and regulation. "We spent the 1990s trying to survive, then we spent much of the last decade achieving stability," Medvedev told a foreign audience recently. "Now we have to dismantle the legacy of our 'beloved' Soviet past."

It all sounds good. But it was all undermined by the fact that, just one day before the blog post appeared, Putin strongly hinted that he intends to return to the presidency at the next election in 2012. "[Medvedev and I] will make that decision together," Putin said. "We are of one blood." In the coded language of modern Russian politics, the message--that Medvedev is little more than a temporary stand-in--was loud and clear.

Putin's return will undermine all of Medvedev's radical proposals, from his economic ideas to his earlier plan to reform Russia's rotten justice and law-enforcement systems. That's because many of Russia's problems today are of Putin's own making. During his two terms in office, Russia's bureaucracy doubled in size, while according to Transparency International, the size of the "bribe economy" increased 10-fold. The bureaucracy became the business elite as the state--from the Kremlin to provincial governors and even local policemen--swallowed up private businesses.

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