President by Acclamation
When Russians go to the polls to pick a new leader, they have a choice: Dmitry Medvedev. by Galina Stolyarova 27 February 2008
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia | Russian authorities have devised a new ballot for the forthcoming presidential elections. The slip contains one question: “Do you object to Dmitry Medvedev becoming the next president of the Russian Federation?” Farther down are two answers to choose from: "YES, I do not object" or "NO, I do not object."
This joke has become hugely popular in the country in recent weeks and it perfectly captures an attitude shared by a significant slice of the electorate as the 2 March vote approaches.
The name of Russia's first deputy prime minister, who last year won President Vladimir Putin's blessing as his likely successor, is everywhere.
Some radio presenters have even begun referring to Medvedev as "the future president," followed by an "oops" or a nervous giggle, before carrying on with what they were saying.
In St. Petersburg, Medvedev's hometown, some shops are already selling his brand-new biography, and the city's wax museum has constructed a shiny new likeness of the Kremlin-backed candidate.
A quality wax figure takes months to complete, so the museum began its preparations before Putin gave his support to Medvedev. So two figures were ordered: Medvedev and another first deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, who was viewed at the time as the other likely successor. After Putin decided on Medvedev, the Ivanov waxwork was dropped. And a group of local journalists recently came across an abandoned half-finished and bald Ivanov lying around in a back room at the museum.
Narrow-shouldered and slightly built, Medvedev doesn’t fit the typical profile of a Russian political leader. At 42, he stands only 162 centimeters tall, a full 10 centimeters shorter than Putin. He is soft-spoken and has never been reported as raising his voice to a colleague or subordinate.
He appears to be calmness personified. It’s impossible to imagine Medvedev uttering the kinds of coarse phrases that Putin barks at the television cameras or at government ministers. Phrases like, "We will waste them in their privies!” "You’d get sick of swallowing dust in court,” and “Stop chewing snot!" If Medvedev does become the most prominent figure in government, Russians are in for a big change in style.
"Indeed, Medvedev is not what one would call charismatic, but nobody said charisma is required in this case," said Boris Vishnevsky, a political analyst and member of the democratic party Yabloko
. "He’s meant to be a technical president, chosen for his proven loyalty and lack of ambition."
Many analysts have pondered why Putin preferred Medvedev to Ivanov. An important factor in choosing him as successor was that Medvedev, unlike most of Putin's team, did not have a background in the security forces, said Ruslan Linkov, director of Democratic Russia, a former political party that now operates as a human rights group. Linkov believes Medvedev is expected to ease the strife between the powerful clans and that he is seen as a compromise figure by representatives of these groups. But he doubts whether Medvedev can pull it off.
"Medvedev, who doesn’t belong to the siloviki
wouldn’t be able to exert any leverage to control them," Linkov said, referring to the Kremlin figures from law enforcement, the military, and security structures.
"A massive reform in law enforcement is currently under way to transfer some of the law enforcement duties that used to be carried out by, for instance, the general prosecutor’s office … to Putin. That plan would prevent Medvedev, lacking control over these spheres, from a chance to easily break loose from Putin and his siloviki
FROM SMALL THINGS
Ten years ago Dmitry Medvedev was an obscure lecturer on Roman civil law at the St. Petersburg State University. He first flirted with politics as an adviser to the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who had been his civil law professor, in the early 1990s.
That was when Medvedev’s path first crossed that of Vladimir Putin, another graduate of the law faculty and a fellow aide to Sobchak. Medvedev was working as a consultant for the city’s committee for foreign affairs and trade when Putin was the committee's director.
Two years earlier Medvedev had married his former classmate from the St. Petersburg school 305, Svetlana Linnik. The couple have 12-year-old son, Ilya.
No longer man in the middle: Dmitry Medvedev with Sergei Ivanov and Vladimir Putin. Kremlin photograph.
The presidential candidate is remembered fondly by his teachers. When Putin announced his support for Medvedev on 10 December 2007, an exhibition honoring the former pupil was mounted within days at the school.
Medvedev’s career began to accelerate at dizzying speed in 1999 when then-Prime Minister Putin awarded his former subordinate a coveted position as deputy head of the government administration, a bureaucratic job serving the cabinet ministers. Within three months, Medvedev was promoted to deputy head of the presidential administration. He became its director in 2003.
Putin’s easy victory in the 2000 presidential election helped spur the rise of Medvedev, who had managed his boss’s election campaign. In June 2000 Medvedev went on to chair the board of directors of Russia’s energy giant, Gazprom.
Medvedev’s strongest rival for the job of the head of presidential administration was radical liberal reformist Dmitry Kozak, now the minister for regional development. Some say he lost out to Medvedev because he showed more independent thinking, too much reformist zeal, and a desire for autonomy in decision-making than Putin could ever be comfortable with.
“Unlike Kozak, Medvedev was never known for bright ideas, bold strategies, or a razor-sharp way of expressing himself,” Vishnevsky said. “Medvedev is a most predictable, pedantic, reliable, and easily manipulated player. One would struggle to find an original thought in his speeches.”
As head of the presidential administration, Medvedev supervised judicial reforms intended to increase the transparency of the Russian court system and to reduce corruption. In 2005, Putin appointed Medvedev first deputy prime minister.
The first real sign that Putin considered Medvedev a possible successor came that same year, when the Russian president put him in charge of four key projects on health care, demographics, agriculture, and education.
Clearly, the presidential support did not come as a free gift. The crucial question is just how many debts Putin’s protégé will have to repay if he does become president, and how much independence he will have.
Russian politicians and analysts admit that they can only guess how much those obligations will affect his ability to maintain a semblance of control.
Yury Korgunyuk, a specialist on political parties at the independent Moscow-based think tank INDEM, perceives Medvedev as a much more liberal politician than Putin.
"In his speeches, Medvedev addresses the issues that never seemed to exist for Putin, for instance, the importance of political freedoms," Korgunyuk said.
Medvedev often uses liberal rhetoric, as, for instance, in a speech at an economic forum in February in Krasnoyarsk.
Medvedev spoke against state officials being given seats on the boards of wealthy corporations. Any action to curb such appointments would have a serious impact on the power of such siloviki
. as Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration, who has a background in the security services and chairs the board of the Rosneft oil corporation.
Medvedev also expressed an apparent intention to follow more liberal policies, saying, “Freedom is better than the lack of freedom – this principle should be at the heart of our policies.”
But some human rights advocates are not getting their hopes up.
"Medvedev's talk about human rights is hypocritical; he never mentioned the horrendously inhumane treatment of the former Yukos official Vasily Aleksanyan [who is now on trial]," Vishnevsky said. "The dying man suffering from AIDS and cancer who can barely move is kept handcuffed in the courtroom and chained to his bed at the prison hospital. This blood-chilling brutality bordering on torture is shown on television, and neither Putin nor Medvedev ever commented on such shameful and unjust treatment of a prisoner."
Yuly Rybakov, a prominent activist with the Memorial human rights organization, said, "To rescue Russia from international isolation, Medvedev needs to make liberal-sounding noises, but one can’t go for democracy half-heartedly. Just as it’s impossible to be half pregnant, a country cannot be 'almost democratic'. It is either a democracy or not, so we must see what Medvedev can do to change things for the better."
But Linkov, of Democratic Russia, sees real evidence of Medvedev’s commitment to democracy. He says that while human rights do not get much of a hearing in the Kremlin these days, Medvedev was much more receptive to such questions when he served as deputy head of the presidential administration.
Not only did Medvedev receive human rights advocates asking for support in what might look like doomed cases, Linkov said, but he would even lend a hand and make a difference in a number of cases involving, in particular, the army and the prisons.
“Apart from helping individuals who suffered from the state, Medvedev made a big difference by removing a bureaucratic formality that did not permit Russian prisoners to use their state medical insurance policies while in jail,” Linkov said. “Because of a loophole in the legislation, doctors in prisons were not getting paid by the insurance funds for treating the inmates, who left the hospitals in a desperate state. Medvedev’s intervention helped to resolve the problem.”
But Medvedev’s liberal tendencies go only so far. In a much-quoted interview in February with Russia's most influential political weekly Itogi
, he called Russia "a country with grand perspectives but many problems” and argued that becoming a parliamentary republic would destroy it.
"I am deeply convinced that if Russia turns into a parliamentary republic, it will soon cease to exist. What it needs is a strong presidential authority," Medvedev said. "Russia as a state has always been centered around a strict executive vertical power system. These lands were brought together over centuries and it is simply impossible to govern them in any other way."
The statement caused an outcry among the country's liberal politicians.
"It shows how afraid Medvedev is of a fair competition," said Yury Vdovin, deputy chairman of the Citizens’ Watch human rights group. "Russian towns are festooned with gigantic billboards showing Putin walking with Medvedev arm in arm under the slogan 'Together we will win'. The Kremlin PR gurus have no shame. Putin's chosen puppet would have never have won if a fair election campaign had been organized."
A nationwide opinion poll held in mid-February by the state-run VTsOIM agency showed Medvedev with the support of 73 percent of voters.
Is Medvedev going to be a real choice or a rote choice for the Russian people? Maria Matskevich, a leading researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, answers with a bitter laugh.
"They don’t talk policies; nor do they go into any detail on Medvedev's political course," Matskevich said. "The polls plainly register his ratings, meaning his general likeability based on people's blind trust in Putin, rather than showing anything based on logic and knowledge."
She says that when respondents are asked what political course Medvedev is going to take, they mostly appear incapable of producing a coherent answer. “They either talk about him as a person using very general terms as ‘good,’ ‘reliable,’ or ‘educated,’, or saying that he would pick up where Putin left off, without saying anything more specific.”
Mario Corti, former head of the Russian Service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, now a commentator with the Baltic Media Group, says a lack of information about what is going on inside the Kremlin has led some Russia analysts to resort to the methods used by Kremlinologists back in Soviet days.
“It was the fashion among the Kremlinologists to divide Politburo members
into doves and hawks,” Corti recalled in an e-mail response. “Similarly there is a tendency today to represent Mr. Putin, the ‘authoritarian,’ as a hawk and Mr. Medvedev, the ‘liberal,’ as a dove.
“Medvedev’s rhetoric in international matters is softer than Putin’s. His background is as a lawyer and university professor,” Corti continued. “He is committed to the private sector. And he understands that Russia is a country of legal nihilism and intends to do something about it. Beyond that he likes Deep Purple and Tina Turner.”
Putin and Medvedev might simply excel at the bad-cop, good-cop routine, Yabloko’s Vishnevsky said. “Just like the two investigators, Putin and Medvedev may seem like different people but they serve one goal. And more importantly – and this is the most unsettling aspect – these two politicians say one thing, do another, and have a third aim in mind all the way through.”
But, Corti said, while Putin has been playing the bad guy to Medvedev’s good guy, the roles can be easily reversed. “It’s an easy game for those who have learned the art of deception, another important part of a politician's skill,” Corti said. "These roles need not to be rigid. In fact, they’re interchangeable."