October 9, 2009 | Commentary on Russia
Is President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia trying to come out from under the shadow of his long-time political mentor and former boss Prime Minister Vladimir Putin? So it would seem.
At a meeting last month with the Valdai Club of Russia experts at his suburban residence in Novo-Ogarevo, Putin -- who had ceded the presidency to Medvedev and is now rumored to be planning to take it back -- insisted that there had been no competition with Medvedev for the office and that there would be none when the next election is held in 2012.
"We will sit down and have a discussion," he said. "We are people of the same blood."
Putin may have been quoting from Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book," in which the hero convinces the jungle animals not to fight by appealing to their common blood.
A few days later, however, Medvedev didn't sound enthusiastic about giving up the 2012 presidential prospects: "Maybe I will have to go and take a blood test to find out whether we do have the same blood type," he deadpanned.
Just a few days before the Valdai meeting, Medvedev had published a manifesto, "Forward, Russia!" It read like an electoral platform for a second presidential term and included the first public disagreements with Putin.
The president wrote that Russia had been on the wrong path for the past eight years. The article diagnosed severe ills in Russia's society and economy, including corruption, dependence on oil and gas exports, lack of economic innovation, lousy law enforcement and judicial and a demographic decline.
Medvedev disagreed with Putin on Russia's approach to the much-delayed World Trade Organization membership; sanctions on Iran (Medvedev may support them; Putin opposes them); and the secrecy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Moscow, apparently to discuss Iran (Medvedev would make it public).
The manifesto sounded like a liberal reformer's political platform. (Someone quipped that Medvedev took his talking points from Vice President Joe Biden, who had blasted Russia's social conditions at a press interview last summer.)
Some symbolic rifts have also surfaced. How one regards past reformers is a litmus test of political leanings in Russia. Medvedev has repeatedly criticized the reformer-czar Peter the Great as too heavy-handed, whereas Putin in the past has glorified the brutal autocrat, and has even had some good things to say about Stalin ("an efficient political manager who left Russia bigger than he received it").
Medvedev has also signaled his differences with Putin by giving interviews to liberal media, such as Novaya Gazeta (where the slain Anna Politkovskaya used to work) or Gazeta.ru, while Putin has preferred call-in marathons on the state-run TV channel. Medvedev also packed the Public Chamber, an advisory body created in 2005 to provide oversight of the government and legislature, with liberals.
The chamber, however, has no teeth. Nor do Medvedev's apparent supporters, most of them moderate economic reformers and lawyers. And he has been too close over the years to Putin to be fully trusted by committed democrats, who accuse him, for example, of failure to release Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed founder of Yukos oil company. Khodorkovsky is currently facing a second trial on what many believe are trumped-up charges.
On the other side, Medvedev's opponents in an open election would include the rich and powerful oil lobby, some of the oligarchs, and the "siloviki" -- the powerful law-enforcement and secret service heads who are close to Putin, and who like things just the way they are.
Reforms in Russia have traditionally succeeded only when Russia was militarily defeated, as in the Crimean War (1854-1855) or in Afghanistan (1979-1989). Reforms failed or were only partially successful when the reformers (Czar Pavel I, Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin) were perceived as weak. For now, Medvedev is weak.
With all this in mind, Moscow political observers facetiously ask whether Medvedev should have focused his manifesto not on demographic decline, rampant alcoholism and an inefficient economy, but on "enemies of Russia" -- external and internal. It worked for his predecessors. But this is not Medvedev's style.
Still, it is possible that reforms in Russia can succeed without fear. But they clearly cannot succeed without improving relations with the West. Russia needs tens of billions of dollars of investment and modern management skills and technology to catch up.
And they are sure to wither without clearly articulated support from the political elites and the broad public. Medvedev knows that. So do his political rivals, and that, hopefully, will shape their contest in the 2012 race, rather than blood.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Allison Center of the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the New York Times