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.
A Secret Agreement
Putin had chosen him because he knew he could depend on Medvedev. He had made him his assistant in the St. Petersburg city administration in the early 1990s. When Putin became prime minister in 1999, he brought Medvedev with him to Moscow. Later, as president, Putin made Medvedev the head of the Kremlin administration and chairman of the energy giant Gazprom. In all of these positions, Medvedev proved to be loyal to the point of self-abandonment. As a result, he was able to outdo his rival Sergei Ivanov, the self-confident former defense minister, when it came time to determine who would succeed Putin in 2008. If Ivanov had become president, Putin would have stood the chance of being sidelined.
In other words, Medvedev was by no means Putin's liberal opponent when he moved into the Kremlin, even if the West and Russian intellectuals wanted to see it that way. He had merely been socialized differently than Putin, who had been shaped by the chaotic 1990s, when governing was informal and laws and institutions were ignored. In contrast, Medvedev was no longer the classic power player. He apparently believed in ideas and the Internet, whereas Putin avoids computers, which portray a world that differs completely from the one that exists in his head.
The decision Medvedev made at the beginning of his term to lengthen the terms of the president and the parliament shows that he did arrive at the Kremlin with his own agenda. The serious constitutional amendment, which signified yet another erosion of the democratic system, was part of a secret agreement that Medvedev and Putin had made before the election. It was the first betrayal of the liberal ideas that he later publicly preached, the birth defect of his failed presidency.
'A Country of Beggars'
It remained a presidency without highlights. Only once was there a phase in which Medvedev tried to make his mark. It lasted less than a year and began in September 2009, with an Internet article in which the president offered a clear-sighted view of conditions in Russia. He sharply criticized Russia's "primitive raw material economy" and "chronic corruption," the "semi-Soviet social sphere" and the "paternalistic mood" within the population. Soon afterward, he told SPIEGEL: "Trading gas and oil is our drug." Medvedev believed that the country needed to rethink its approach, and that it needed "strict and consistent changes."
But he did not follow his own advice. A disappointed citizen named "Vanya" wrote in the president's blog: "We are a country of beggars, a country without a future, a country of slaves, chaos and disintegration. Mr. President, it's time to do something. Stop waffling!"
But Medvedev rarely made his own decisions. The firing of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and later the Kremlin's pro-Western position on the NATO campaign in Libya, which Putin had sharply criticized as a "crusade," were his only significant, independent positions. All other attempts by Medvedev to separate himself from his mentor Putin failed miserably. The president wanted to quickly lead Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO), hoping to integrate the backward country more effectively into the world economy. But whenever Medvedev's advisers eliminated a hurdle to joining the WTO, Putin would erect a new one. He even single-handedly raised import duties on foreign cars.
In an interview that was broadcast nationwide in late December 2010, Medvedev once mentioned the names of Putin's opponents, which had been a taboo on government television until then. A few days later, Putin had Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and current member of the opposition, arrested at a rally. He vilified Nemtsov and his supporters as traitors to their country "who want to sell out Russia."
Medvedev also criticized Putin's premature condemnation of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky before the end of his second trial. Putin had said that Khodorkovsky was guilty of at least three murders. But Medvedev's objection was of little use. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Humiliating the President
The fact that Medvedev, the son of a professor, was never able to fully take advantage of his political power probably had something to do with his solid upbringing. He was no Boris Yeltsin, who was willing to put his office and his life on the line for his beliefs, nor was he an alpha dog like Putin, who learned early on how to assert himself against stronger boys during his childhood in the backstreets of a working-class St. Petersburg neighborhood.
Medvedev has always seen himself in the role of Putin's little brother, as almost every photo depicting the two men clearly shows. From his posture, to his behavior, to the way he walked, it was clear that the president was trying to emulate the prime minister.
This relationship enabled Putin, who addresses Medvedev by his first name while Medvedev addresses the prime minister in a more formal tone, to humiliate the president whenever he pleased. When Medvedev proposed his Skolkovo project, a Russian version of Silicon Valley he had dreamed up, as well as a modernization commission, only €250 million ($340 million) was made available in the budget. Putin, for his part, created his own modernization committee with a €2.4-billion budget to set himself apart from Medvedev.
Did Medvedev truly hope to run for president again, as sources at the Kremlin had suggested? And did Putin pressure him to pull back during a fishing trip in August on the Volga River in Astrakhan?
It will remain their secret. But for Medvedev, it was doubly humiliating that Putin forced him to run as the top candidate for United Russia, which Medvedev had often criticized as a party of yes-men.
Medvedev will not even be able to escape the experience of being upbraided by Putin when he becomes prime minister -- if the appointment materializes in the first place. Then he will have to implement the program that Putin had announced at the United Russia convention. This too is contrary to Medvedev's ideas, because Putin has turned Russia into a land of state capitalism. During Putin's time in office, the share of GDP earned by state-owned companies increased once again to almost 50 percent. Medvedev, for his part, sought to privatize state-owned operations like oil giant Rosneft and the national airline Aeroflot, but his efforts quickly failed.
Heavy Burden on the National Budget
The world's largest country by area is still highly dependent on its oil and natural gas exports. Aside from space travel, the nuclear and the defense industry, all attempts to develop other economic sectors to make them internationally competitive have failed. The gap between rich and poor has widened, and the healthcare system in some parts of the country is comparable to that in much poorer countries.
To conceal these shortcomings, Putin sugarcoated his record wherever he could at the United Russia convention. He raved about the 6 million children born since 2008, the "highest number in 20 years," but neglected to mention that deaths still outnumbered births by at least a million within the same period. He also said nothing about the fact that well-educated young Russians are leaving the country in growing numbers.
Instead, the delegates were deluged with a flood of campaign promises that will impose a heavy burden on the national budget and businesses. He promised a 19-percent increase in pensions, new equipment for the army and navy in the coming years, a freeze on local fees for electricity and water and the construction of 1,000 new schools. Effective immediately, teachers, doctors, police officers and soldiers will receive a 6.5 percent pay hike. How Putin expects to achieve the 7 percent annual growth rates he envisions remains a mystery.
Of course, Putin isn't the one who will have to implement everything. That task will fall to Medvedev when he becomes prime minister in May. He will also have to press ahead with tax increases and raising the retirement age, both reforms that are no longer avoidable. Putin will be able to confidently look on from his new office at the Kremlin, where he will not be the target of the expected popular outrage. He will be able to use Medvedev as his scapegoat and even throw him out of office if it suits him, which is something Medvedev wouldn't have dreamed of doing. It is a safe bet that the hapless president will also remain unsuccessful as prime minister.
Slipping into Putin's Role
Was Medvedev ever really a reformer? In the week after the decision on the transition of power was made, the president didn't show the slightest sign of supporting liberal ideas. On the contrary, he was slipping into Putin's role as a macho politician. On live camera, he churlishly dismissed Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, because Kudrin had criticized the Kremlin's fiscal policy. On Tuesday of last week, he attended a military maneuver wearing a leather jacket and called for higher defense spending. He pointed out that Russia is a nuclear power and "not a banana republic," and that anyone who felt otherwise should look for a new job.
These weren't the words of someone who disagrees with Putin. This leads to the sobering conclusion that Medvedev was greatly overestimated, and that he wasn't an honest president. "He preached the mantra of modernization and in doing so awakened hopes of change -- while at the same time doing absolutely nothing at all," says Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Center, a Moscow-based think tank. Many, she adds, believed in his plans to bring Russia forward.
Now, says Shevtsova, Medvedev has yielded the floor to Putin again. This means no reforms and the return of the old model of tough leadership. It is an irony of history, she says, that "a politician who looks like a reformer can be a greater impediment to progress than an open traditionalist." Liberal rhetoric in a non-liberal environment in which the thumbscrews are tightened even further, she argues, "only increases cynicism in society."
This is precisely what is already happening. In an opinion piece this week, journalist Yulia Latynina wrote that in a normal electoral system, only one person could become president, but everyone can vote. In Russia, on the other hand, the situation was reversed. "Everyone can be president here, even Putin's beloved Labrador -- but only one person can call the shots: Putin."
Throwing in the Towel
If there is one thing Medvedev's former supporters hold against the president, it is that this young, healthy and completely capable man did not find it necessary to explain to his more than 52 million voters why he is throwing in the towel after only one term.
"You gave people false hope of a normal future," a young Moscow opposition politician wrote on his blog, "but now it's clear that you are like Putin."
Many Russians have now shed their last illusions, says political scientist Anatoly Bernstein. "As a result, Russia is losing the energy and faith of many decent citizens," he says, things that it urgently needs to revitalize itself.
The tabloid newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets wrote: "The course of history was apparently stopped in our country. A power that is no longer capable of awakening hope is opening the door to its own grave."