There is a scene that serves as a metaphor for the fate of Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev. It took place in December 2008, long before Russia's 46-year-old president committed political suicide last Saturday.
Medvedev had only been in office for seven months at the time. He was giving a speech to 5,000 guests at the Kremlin, at an event to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Russian constitution. The constitution had just been amended to lengthen the terms of the president and the parliament -- and thus reduce the frequency of elections.
Just as Medvedev was praising the Kremlin for its contributions to freedom and democracy, a young man, a student of economics at a Moscow university, stood up and shouted: "Why are you listening to him? He has violated all civil and human rights himself! This country has censorship and no free elections "
Security officers in black suits pounced on the 25-year-old and held his mouth shut. "Let him go!" Medvedev shouted. "The constitution was ratified precisely so that everyone could have the right to express his opinion!" But the men from the Kremlin security service completely ignored Medvedev. Instead, they grabbed the troublemaker and carried him out of the room.
A similar problem has plagued Medvedev throughout his presidency. Whenever his limousine approached the Kremlin, the security guards would announce: "The president is about to arrive!" But when it was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the limousine, they would say: "Nastoyashtchiy yedet" -- "Now the real one is coming."
It has been a week since Medvedev, at the convention of the ruling party, United Russia, meekly agreed to give up his post and allow himself to be sidelined into the position of prime minister. It was the most important shift in Russia's course since Boris Yeltsin promoted then KGB Colonel Putin to the highest office in the country, less than 12 years ago, and one that will likely continue to affect the enormous country for more than a decade to come. Medvedev will remain Russia's leader for only seven more months. Since last weekend, the state-owned broadcasters have been referring to Medvedev as the "current" president, as if they couldn't wait for the changing of the guard to be completed.
There has been no public outcry in Moscow since then. On the day after the announcement, only 500 outraged citizens assembled in front of the Pushkin monument, a favorite meeting place for dissidents.
But there has been fierce discussion in political circles over the many questions that remain. Is Putin's return to the Kremlin good for Russia's stability, or is it the kiss of death for democracy and liberalism? Does it herald an economic upturn or stagnation?
The most important question is whether Medvedev, in the three-and-a-half years of his presidency, ever fought for the values he promoted. It is quite possible that he knowingly accepted the role of the obedient Kremlin soldier in a drama, whose outcome the Putin/Medvedev tandem only revealed to the public last weekend. If that is the case, he was merely a seat warmer on the Kremlin throne -- a figurehead not unlike the farmer's son Mikhail Kalinin, who formally represented the Soviet Union as its nominal head of state for 23 years under Stalin, or the Ukrainian Nikolai Podgorny, who did the same thing for 21 years under party leader Leonid Brezhnev.
If things truly unfolded the way it appears, this president played an ominous role for Russia in the last few years, despite his supposedly liberal views -- or precisely because of them. It appears that he was nothing more than Putin's accomplice.
Portrayed as Weak
Shortly before his election in 2008, many already believed that Medvedev would merely serve as a placeholder in the Kremlin. In recent months, however, there had been growing rumors that Putin would return to power, rumors reinforced by a weekly barrage of images of Putin as an omnipotent leader presented: at the steering wheel of a Lada, as he drives (alone, supposedly) across Siberia, hunting a gray whale in the Pacific, riding a motorcycle with a group of bikers and diving down to the sea floor to recover an antique amphora. The most recent photo is of Putin standing bare-chested in front of a doctor, who confirms that he is in excellent health.
The message was clear: Look at me, I'm the strongest man in the country. At the same time, photos of Medvedev portrayed him as weak and almost despondent, constantly announcing that he would soon issue a statement about his political future as president -- which he never did. He had already given up months ago.
It isn't Putin's return that is surprising, but the manner in which the tandem -- or rather, Putin -- staged the game they were playing: as a big production at the convention of the United Russia party. The directors had brought in 10,000 schoolchildren and students to be an enthusiastic audience for the eerie government drama at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports in Moscow. No one knew what exactly the party would be voting on, but each attendee was given a sheet of paper with instructions on what to wear ("jacket, no tie, with jeans") and a list of slogans to chant ("chant each one at least five times").
Medvedev, who had condemned the practices of Russian state propaganda several times, was nothing but decoration. He sat silently next to Putin, the politician who could very well end up ruling Russia longer than Leonid Brezhnev.
Yuri Ryzhkov, the former Russian ambassador to France, says it was Yeltsin's biggest mistake, even "a crime," to install as his successor Putin. He describes Putin as a "man full of complexes" who is convinced "of his absolute freedom to do as he pleases when it comes to his own people."
But it is now becoming clear that it was just as irresponsible to install a man like Medvedev at the Kremlin three-and-a-half years ago.