Home The Washington Diplomat July 2009

Medvedev vs. Putin: Who's Ruling Russia?

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When President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meet July 6 to 8 in Moscow to discuss a new nuclear pact, Americans will get another glimpse at the third post-Soviet leader — a man who largely remains a mystery following his meteoric rise to power last year.

The mystery surrounding the man is fed in large part by the fact that he has lived under the shadow of his mentor and predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who in turn single-handedly brought Medvedev out of the shadows. Without Putin’s endorsement, Medvedev would not be president. And by some accounts, Medvedev is merely a placeholder, having agreed to serve a single four-year term so that Putin — now prime minister — can return to the stage in 2012 to reclaim his old job.

Putin remains the country’s most popular politician, credited by some with pulling the country out of financial turmoil on the back of oil revenue windfalls. His larger-than-life persona is starkly different than that of Medvedev. He’s a tough-talking veteran of the KGB, Judo black belt and bare-chested fisherman. Medvedev, on the other hand, is three inches shorter — at 5 foot 4 inches — than Putin. He’s a bookish technocrat and former law professor who had never before held elective office.

The dueling images and the duel leadership scenario have left many open questions as to who exactly is in charge: Is Medvedev only a change in style, not substance? Is he an apparatchik or ambitious young leader? Does he have enough political clout to change the course of Russia after Putin spent eight years consolidating control over government, business and the news media? Can a product of the system, change the system?

Some recent evidence suggests Medvedev is slowly separating himself from Putin and the so-called silovik wing of the Kremlin — the influential group of secret service and military officials grouped around Putin.

So far, Medvedev has given an interview with a fiercely anti-Kremlin newspaper and met with liberal and human rights leaders whom Putin once described as “scavenging jackals.” He’s vowed to improve relations with the United States, push democratic reforms, reform the courts and fight corruption. (Putin and others made a similar anti-corruption pledge only to see it increase under his eight-year presidency.)

Despite the moves, some political observers don’t believe Medvedev is running the show.

“Medvedev demonstrates that his power is still very circumspect,” said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Putin is still calling the shots. On the rhetorical level ... [Medvedev] indicates he has a position of his own, but it does not translate into practice.”

Others are less pessimistic, saying it is nearly impossible to decipher whether the men are working in tandem or who calls the shots in certain circumstances. And — at least when it comes to the economic downturn — some suggest Medvedev has not been given enough credit for his opposition to state intervention and vocal support of economic reforms aimed at increasing foreign investment.

Indeed, one of the starkest differences between the two presidencies has been the economy, with Russia under Putin coasting along on record-high oil prices, while Medvedev confronts a tanking economy that’s overly dependent on energy reserves. (Russia’s economy shrunk by 9.5 percent year on year in the first quarter of 2009, while its industrial output plummeted by nearly 15 percent.)

Jeffrey Mankoff of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that Medvedev’s approach to tackling the economic crisis is fueling a growing rift between the military and security officials grouped around Putin and the economic liberals aligned with Medvedev.

“Liberal economists have largely stayed in power; people from the state sector and security services around Putin ... their hold has diminished I think,” Mankoff said.

“The main dispute seems to be over how to use the state’s massive foreign reserve holdings. People around Putin have been pushing to use the money to bail out uncompetitive but politically connected industries and to take advantage of many private firms’ difficulties to effectively nationalize them,” Mankoff explained, comparing the maneuver to a kind of debt-for-equity swap.

“The liberals around Medvedev have been keener to not blow a hole in the state budget and to not bail out companies that cannot survive without state aid, though they do not always agree among themselves,” Mankoff added, noting that finance minister Alexei Kudrin is the chief budget hawk in the group, while economic advisor Arkady Dvorkovich and economic development minister Elvira Nabiullina favor some limited fiscal assistance.

Medvedev himself has taken a fairly frank approach to the financial crisis, admitting it will be “long running and very resistant,” while at the same time trying to assure investors that the Russian economy will rebound faster than expected.

Heavy Metal, Heavier Studies Medvedev was born in 1965 in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). He is the only child of two university professors — his father was a physicist who taught at a polytechnic institute and his mother taught Russian language and literature. (In 1952, Putin was also born in Leningrad. However, he is the son of an ex-serviceman of the Soviet Navy and a factory worker.)

In a pre-election profile by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Medvedev’s first teacher said, “He always tried very hard” and devoted “all his time to his studies. One very rarely saw him playing with other boys, running with a ball. He looked like a small, serious old man.”

Medvedev has an affinity for heavy-metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. He married his high school sweetheart and has one son. And following in the footsteps of his parents, he became a professor.

In 1982, he enrolled in Leningrad State University and graduated in 1987. While there, Medvedev participated in the local Komsomol (Communist Youth) and met Anatoly Sobchak, a professor who would become Saint Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor.

In 1989, Medvedev worked on Sobchak’s successful campaign and in 1991 he accepted a job in his administration. That’s when he first met Putin, whom Sobchak had hired to run the city’s external-affairs committee. Putin would become a father figure and Medvedev his trusted protégé.

“Several times we briefed Putin together on various legal issues, and I noticed that Putin regarded Medvedev’s recommendations with respect,” Valery Musin, Medvedev’s former academic adviser and law professor at Leningrad State University, told the St. Petersburg Times last year. “Medvedev may seem soft and pliable as a team member, but he is quite rigid on the things that he believes are right.”

Medvedev also pursued business interests. In 1992, he created Fintsell, which later founded Ilim Pulp Enterprises, Russia’s largest timber and pulp company. Following Sobchak’s failed bid in the 1996 mayoral race, Putin went to Moscow while Medvedev stayed behind to lecture and continue with his business interests.

But that did not last long. President Boris Yeltsin, celebrated for his democratic reforms but criticized for scandals and corruption, appointed Putin prime minister and went on to name him his preferred successor — with some speculating a deal had been cut to keep Yeltsin out of jail.

In 1999, Putin hired Medvedev within three months of being named prime minister. A month later, Yeltsin resigned and Putin appointed Medvedev as his deputy chief of staff, promoting him to chief of staff in 2003. In 2000, Medvedev was also named chairman of energy giant Gazprom, Russia’s largest producer of natural gas. He presided over the company’s gas pricing disputes with neighboring countries, most notably Ukraine.

Medvedev’s political star really skyrocketed in 2005 after Putin appointed him to a specially created post as first deputy prime minister in charge of five national projects. Previously known as a behind-the-scenes operator, Medvedev took the reigns of Putin’s national projects, which garnered enormous media attention on state-run television. Then in March 2008, the anointed successor was elected president of the Russian Federation.

Puppet or Rising Political Force? Medvedev won a landslide victory in the March 2008 elections. As Putin’s handpicked successor, the election was never really in doubt. He was inaugurated that May and Putin was named prime minister a day later, as both men pledged to run the country in “tandem.”

In a recent interview, Medvedev said, “As I see it, our coordinated activity has allowed us to tackle many objectives rather efficiently. I think this has been a rather effective, viable mechanism, although it is not up to politicians to assess their work.”

In retrospect Putin was lucky. His eight-year tenure was characterized by a booming economy that made it easy to please the public with energy-fueled growth that translated into an extravagant luxury for the elite, as well as a dramatic rise in incomes for the middle class.

Medvedev faced several early challenges. He dealt with a brief war with Georgia, hot and cold relations with the West, and the global economic mess. The events largely put his crusade against “legal nihilism” (disregard for the law) and government corruption on ice, muddied who was in control, and left the pessimists convinced they were right — and that the president was a Putin puppet.

“Medvedev’s behavior during the war in Georgia and dealing with Ukraine during the gas prices was close to indistinguishable in the way Putin had dealt with those issues,” Mankoff of the Council on Foreign Relations told The Washington Diplomat. “Is that because Medvedev is acting out of conviction or is he doing that because he is not the one wielding the power and is doing the bidding of the puppet master? I don’t think it is possible to answer that question entirely.”

But the souring economy and sinking oil prices have conversely helped Medvedev distance himself from Putin — or at least diminish the former president’s popularity and political power, according to Mankoff. He believes Russians now are more likely to question the “implicit bargain” Putin made with them: that he would deliver high economic growth and high standards of living and they would tolerate more state involvement and fewer civil rights.

“If the government they identify with Putin fails to uphold its end of the bargain, then how long does the public continue to uphold its side of the deal,” Mankoff asked.

The situation has helped Medvedev carve out some political space. When Putin launched an attack on purported price-fixing by coal and steel producer Mechel, the company’s stock plunged. Putin’s comments triggered fears that Mechel would become a near repeat of the 2003 takeover of oil giant Yukos, whose former owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, was convicted on sketchy charges of fraud and tax evasion in 2005.

As a result of the Mechel scare, Medvedev was forced to nudge back. He responded by ordering state officials to stop “terrorizing” businesses, a comment apparently aimed at Putin. It reflected the philosophical divide between the protectionist nature of the Putin camp and economic reform and integration message coming from Medvedev’s supporters.

The new president has also criticized the Putin-led government for being too slow in responding to the economic crisis and pardoned 12 people sentenced for crimes like petty theft. He gave his first interview with a Russian newspaper to the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, whose reporters have been killed and harassed in recent years. He also met with a human rights activist and liberal economist from the Institute of Contemporary Development, and he’s proposed easing restrictions on nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia. (Still, human rights leaders, including Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan, say Medvedev has not lived up to his commitment of enhancing the rule of law and that “no significant changes are yet visible.”)

Mankoff noted that Medvedev has also diverged from Putin in proposing an all-European security pact and in the success he has had pushing for large-scale military reforms.

In addition, on April 21, a Moscow court granted early parole to Svetlana Bakhmina, a former lawyer for the Yukos oil company who has been jailed as part of the government’s prosecution of Khodorkovsky.

While some see the second round of questionable charges against Khodorkovsky as a test for Medvedev’s promise to stamp out “legal nihilism” and strengthen the rule of law, Mankoff says he is more interested to see whether Medvedev’s pledge will help stem the tide of violence against journalists who write stories critical of the Kremlin. In 2007, according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, 75 journalists were physically attacked and eight killed. Not a single murder of a journalist has been solved (though Russia’s Supreme Court recently ordered a retrial of the three men accused of involvement in the 2006 killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya).

“I think it would be more of a bellwether as to what happens with journalists who have obviously been targeted with murky forces with various connections to the state,” Mankoff said. “Many people have not been investigated…. If Medvedev is serious about the rule of law, things like that need to stop happening.”

The July Summit Some of these lingering questions will take center stage next week as Obama and Medvedev meet in the hopes of advancing — or even signing — a new nuclear pact.

Negotiators from both sides began meeting in April to devise the draft of a successor agreement that would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) by the time the two presidents meet this month in Moscow. The current START-1 is set to expire Dec. 5 and has been one of the few bright spots in relations between the United States and Russia, which together hold about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. A future nuclear agreement will also be key to the two countries’ larger nonproliferation efforts with regard to Iran and North Korea.

The meeting is part of the shared stated desire of the two countries to “reset” relations following increasingly strained ties in recent years. Like every relationship, it will likely involve some give and take, experts say, and acknowledgment of areas of disagreement.

For Obama, the diplomatic cooperation could help in a number of priority areas, including the war in Afghanistan, the economy, and confronting Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

For Medvedev, stronger ties could entail less U.S. support for NATO expansion in Georgia and no American involvement in the coming Ukraine election. Medvedev is also likely to bring up the proposed anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia worries is an encroachment on its borders.

Recent reports say Obama, who is still reviewing the system, has hinted to Medvedev that the United States would freeze plans to install a missile defense program in Eastern Europe if Russia helps curtail Iran’s nuclear threat.

Moscow though has reportedly rebuffed that suggestion, saying the two issues are not linked. And although Putin has said that Russia is willing to abandon its nukes, he continued his anti-American rhetoric with the jab that Russia would do so only “if those who made the atomic bomb and used it are ready to abandon it.”

Moreover, regardless whether it’s Putin or Medvedev in charge, both men will undoubtedly want to exert Russia’s influence in the former Soviet bloc neighborhood and resist even the perception of American meddling in their internal affairs.

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, an extension of the D.C.-based think tank, told the New York Times that despite the potential for cooperation, at the end of the day, both parties may realize they still have little in common. “There is unfortunately very little to talk about if you consider the lack of common interests and values,” she said.

Likewise, in his Foreign Policy article “Rethink Before You Reset,” Daniel Kimmage charged that “Russia’s guiding principle is not some abstract notion of national interest, but rather the narrower interests of the elite — energy exports and cozy ties with likeminded regimes. The style has been thuggish, fed by the elite’s three great formative influences: the gangland 1990s, the KGB inheritance, and a territorial, zero-sum understanding of relations between states taken directly from the Cold War playbook.

“But make no mistake — the Cold War is over, and the Kremlin’s playbook today looks more like a checkbook. The bottom line is that for Russia’s mercenary-minded elite, it’s all about the bottom line,” Kimmage warned.

The world is still waiting to see if the studious Medvedev’s bottom line is different than that of his bullish predecessor. Perhaps Obama can find some common ground with Medvedev in talking about their shared interest in law. If that fails, there’s also the classic collection of several hundred LPs in storage at the official White House Library. That collection includes “Led Zeppelin IV.”

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014