Professor Robert Service is director of the Russian Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, writing in the Times of London:
Will the real Dmitry Medvedev please stand up? The optimists among Russia-watchers believe that once he takes power we shall see a great reformer on the Kremlin throne.
Their thinking runs as follows. Vladimir Putin, taking over from Boris Yeltsin in 2000, has brought order to the Muscovite chaos. Politics in Russia is a rough trade. Yeltsin, old and infirm, indulged corruption. Putin got rid of the interfering business “oligarchs” and brought predictability to governance. He eliminated Russia’s debts and arranged for energy revenues to trickle down to society at large. He has anointed Medvedev as the man to continue reform.
Together they have devised “national programmes” for healthcare, education, housing and agriculture. Medvedev was put in charge of them last year. By picking him as his successor, Putin is supposedly breaking with those in the security services and the oil-and-gas lobby who oppose any further reform.
Optimism carries some observers still further. Medvedev, they speculate, is biding his time. Thus he intends to abandon Putin’s caution and achieve a rapid transition to democracy and the rule of law. There are precedents. Khrushchev denounced Stalin. Gorbachev ridiculed Brezhnev. Putin showed contempt for Yeltsin.
The chances are surely slim that Medvedev is a closet liberal. The evidence suggests that the pessimists are nearer the mark. It is true that Medvedev has spoken warmly about democracy. At the world economic forum at Davos last year he noted that the most successful economies are underpinned by fair elections and impartial justice. He talks a good talk. His face is bland and smiling – he looks like a former member of a 1980s boyband. At only 42 he seems to bring a fresh approach to public policy.
In reality the future Russian president belongs to a ruthless ruling group. Like Putin he comes from St Petersburg, and their association has been long and close. Medvedev trained as a lawyer and put his expertise at the Kremlin’s disposal at a time when Putin was hammering his enemies into the ground.
In Moscow he chaired Gazprom and headed the presidential administration. He has been the perfect apparatchik, elaborating and enforcing the measures required by Putin. Medvedev is not a new broom but an old dust rag that carries the residue of Putin’s presidency – and Putin has in any case indicated a wish to continue to wield some power, even as prime minister.
A positive verdict on the Putin years is inappropriate. Without the energy export bonanza, the government would be as unpopular as Yeltsin’s was. Putin was elected president in spring 2000. But the improvement in Russia’s economy started in 1998 when emergency measures were introduced to cope with the country’s default on its debts. Far from being a miracle-worker, Putin has been the beneficiary of changes already in place. And Putin’s good fortune was doubled when oil and gas revenues began to swell his treasury.
Putin made his reputation as the bringer of order. Yet the number of terrorist outbreaks has not diminished but increased. Chechnya is quiet only because a Kremlin-sponsored local thug has been allowed to run amok there. Healthcare spending as a share of GDP is lower than in the 1990s.
But not everything has gone to the bad. Whereas a third of the population lived below the UN recognised poverty level in the late 1990s, today the figure is a sixth. Russians in general have a private life free from political interference. They can join independent social clubs and, if they have the money, travel abroad. They can sit on the bus and moan freely about Putin or Medvedev. The internet is free from state censorship. Putin, moreover, is credited with regaining respect for Russia in the rest of the world. When he wagged his finger at Blair and Bush, he was cheered at home.
Russian society will have to deal in its own way with the mixed legacy of the Yeltsin-Putin years. Perhaps people will begin to assert themselves again. The profits from energy exports have accrued to associates of the Putin group, and Russians may one day register their resentment. The regime has never been as confident as it pretends. That is why it stopped any serious rival standing against Medvedev. It then started worrying that not enough people would bother to vote today. Many public-sector employees have been told their jobs depend on their votes. This is a sign of an insecure leadership.
Other countries can at least stand firm in protecting their own interests. When Putin became president, he was lionised in the West. This was a mistake that should not be repeated with Medvedev. Our bargaining hand is not weak. Although Europe needs Russian oil and gas, Russia is equally dependent on the promptness and reliability of European payments – and Russian business is flourishing because of its access to London finance. But if Medvedev and Gazprom decide Ukraine should pay the same for its energy as the Isle of Man does, we should not react by saying that a “new cold war” has started. Nor should Russia suffer expulsion from the G8. The Chinese prison regime, after all, is bigger and worse than the Russian one, and yet few have called for China’s removal.
The advice given in the tundra should be our guideline. We should not hug and kiss the bear. But we should not run away as soon as it growls.