Medvedev's First Year: A Czar in Chains

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One year after taking office, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's track record has been less than impressive. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still pulls the strings of power while his former protégé struggles unsuccessfully to free himself.

It was February 2008 when Dmitry Medvedev presented his reform program as incoming president of Russia, standing stiffly before hundreds of business leaders in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. He included a sentence that, to the audience, sounded like a promise: "Freedom is better than no freedom."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be in charge on paper, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continues to pull strings in the background.
AFP

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be in charge on paper, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continues to pull strings in the background.

It was almost like a liberal coming-out party for Vladimir Putin's protégé, one that set the stage for the withdrawal of the increasingly authoritarian, controlling, ex-KGB chief. The erstwhile crown prince condemned the rampant corruption and the arbitrariness of Russia's bureaucracy, and promised to complete the laborious task of strengthening Russia's governmental institutions, infrastructure, innovation, and investments. After that speech, people spoke respectfully of "Medvedev's four I's."

But since Medvedev's inauguration at the beginning of May 2008, his presidency has more often been associated with the letters C -- for corruption and crisis -- and W -- for war. Russia has been especially hard hit by the worldwide financial crisis and unemployment currently stands at 10 percent.

Medvedev's tentative overtures toward Europe and the United States have been overshadowed by conflicts. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a planned mid-May meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Tuesday, in protest against NATO maneuvers in Georgia. The body had just reopened discussions that had been suspended following the war in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia in August 2008.

Russian infrastructure is as dilapidated as ever, innovation has been a long time coming, and there's even less progress to report regarding institutional reform, as evidenced by the recently revived court case against leading ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Medvedev's 'Golden 100'

One year after Medvedev's inauguration, media and political observers are puzzled as to just how free the supposedly most powerful man in Russia really is.

According to the Russian constitution, the president is supposed to define the guidelines for domestic and foreign policies. But in practice, he is a ruler without his own troops. Medvedev may be the official head of state, but it is actually his predecessor, current Prime Minister Putin, who controls Russia's fate, believes political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov. The editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs told Moscow magazine The New Times that Medvedev is crippled "by the very source from which he derives his legitimacy -- Vladimir Putin."

Although Medvedev introduced a 100-member talent pool for key government positions, and helped a few classmates with their ascent to higher judicial posts, the real power positions remain firmly in the hands of Putin loyalists.

But Medvedev has eagerly sent out the message that he is devoted to a more liberal course. He wisely agreed to an interview with the highly regarded, Kremlin-critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta. On the day of the interview, he also invited human rights activists to the Kremlin, heartily congratulated the chair of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers on her birthday and addressed the guests as "honored colleagues."

Another signal of a softer stance in the Kremlin is the release of Svetlana Bakhmina. The respected former attorney of Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company had been in prison since 2004 and the Kremlin refused to reduce her sentence despite the fact that she was pregnant. However, shortly after Medvedev's meeting with human rights activists, she was released on parole and reunited with her family.

Nothing Like Gorbachev

"Medvedev is sending important signals to the liberal opposition," explains Russia expert Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "He presumably wants to stay true to his program and institute reforms, but with whom should he be working? He has so far been unable to bring any true confidants into leadership positions."

It is rumored that even the president's bodyguards are the same as those in Putin's time.

During his presidency Putin filled the Kremlin, government, and state enterprises with loyal cronies which leaves Medvedev with limited space to operate. "Words are good, but they don't change the system," says Rahr. "No one can say what kind of leverage Medvedev actually has. Perhaps he can free himself, but he has little room for maneuver." As far as Russia's power structure is concerned, the vital security and energy policies remains firmly under the control of Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.

"Putin will be watching to make sure Medvedev doesn't overstep his limits, as Mikhail Gorbachev once did," says Rahr.

As general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party in the late 1980s, Gorbachev heralded the end of the Soviet Union and Russia's turn toward the West.

Medvedev's strategy has even been dubbed "Perestroika 2" in allusion to Gorbachev's reform policies. However, unlike the current head of state, Gorbachev realized the importance of bringing in powerful colleagues as allies -- Eduard Shevardnadze was his foreign minister and Alexander Yakovlev was a senior party official. Together with Yakovlev, Gorbachev pushed his opponents out of the central committee, 98 people alone in 1989, most of whom were aging supporters of the neo-Stalinist former President Leonid Brezhnev.

"But there is no one like Yakovlev and Shevardnadze at the moment," says Rahr.

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