The majority of Russian and Western observers see the man who will become the new President of the Russian Federation this month as an only relatively liberal figure, if not as a faceless opportunist. Some even think that Medvedev will be a second Putin whose rise means merely more of what we have seen during the last eight years. However, Medvedev’s early political biography and most recent statements on such issues as multi-party competition, freedom of the press, or Russia’s relations to the West point in a different direction. Should the Russian presidential administration come under the lasting and full control of Medvedev, the Kremlin will become a focal point of pro-democratic tendencies in Moscow. This development could lead to a situation reminiscent of an earlier period of transition that gained fame under its Russian name perestroika.
Such a prediction follows from a closer look on Medvedev’s curriculum vitae which is dissimilar from Putin’s. The outgoing and future Russian presidents are both jurists who grew up and studied at St. Petersburg. Yet, not only has the thirteen years younger Medvedev no known KGB background. He started to be active in politics already during the heydays of Gorbachev’s glasnost when Putin was still serving for the KGB in Dresden. Researching for an advanced law degree at Leningrad State University, in early 1989, Medvedev also worked as an election campaigner for his professor Anatolyi Sobchak – then a prominent leader of Russia’s emerging democratic movement running for a seat in the USSR parliament. This was, to be sure, only a brief episode in Medvedev’s biography. His later posts within the St. Petersburg City as well as the Russian Presidential Administrations and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Russia’s huge gas monopoly Gazprom as well as his work as Deputy Prime Minister of Russia were what determined his political career. Yet, Medvedev’s brief involvement in the Russian democratic movement in 1989 is still significant. That was a time when it was not yet entirely clear whether the Soviet system was indeed at its end, and when becoming an anti-communist activist was still something of a risk.
Moreover, this rarely noted aspect of Medvedev’s bio correlates with those political announcements that have been shaping his public profile for the last years. The Kremlin’s notorious code-word for anti-Western foreign and illiberal domestic policies - “sovereign democracy” – was rejected by Medvedev, in an interview for the popular journal Ekspert (24th July 2006), as “a far from ideal term.” Concerning “sovereign democracy,” Medvedev aptly noted that “when qualifying additions are made to the word ‘democracy’ this leaves one with a strange after-taste. It suggests that what is actually meant is some other, non-traditional democracy.” In an interview with the journal Ogonek (12th June 2006), Medvedev stated that “I certainly do not see Russia’s role as that of an opponent of America,” and that “it is obvious for me that Russia should position herself as a part of Europe.” As a collection of quotes from various 2004-2008 speeches and interviews by Medvedev collected in the Moscow weekly magazine Profil’ (4th February 2008) shows, he seems to believe sincerely that competition among large parties, a strong civil society, active civic disobedience, an articulate opposition, multiple channels of information, an independent judiciary, and a transfer of power by democratic means are all good for, though not yet a reality in, Russia. While defending Putin’s strengthening of the state, Medvedev, in an interview for Moskovskii komsomolets (14th September 2006), also said that this process should “in no way make fundamental values, i.e. basic human rights and freedoms, a victim of an increase of order.” He made clear that “to think that Russia has a special path and faces a specific set of challenges is absolutely naïve.”
Statements like these have been informing Medvedev’s current public image and assessments of his ideological position among the members of Putin’s entourage. Medvedev, already before Putin named him his successor, positioned himself a champion of liberal democracy. In contrast, Putin’s political profile when he had been emerging as Boris Yeltsin’s successor in 1999 was that of a non-nonsense security service officer, and potentially tough leader not afraid to resolutely use force in order to bring “stability” to the North Caucasus, and fight Chechen terrorism.
It is true that, Medvedev’s rise – especially his patronage by Putin since the early 1990s – contains episodes of opportunism and hypocrisy. Yet Medvedev would not be the first Russian reformer (and modern politician, in general) with an ambivalent background. Before initiating a period of relative cultural liberalization in the late 1950s, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, for instance, was a staunch Stalinist whose biography did not indicate that he might one day dismantle key components of Stalin’s system. Russia’s most radical democratic reformer so far, Mikhail Gorbachev, too passed the entire Soviet career ladder from local Komsomol functionary to full Politbureau member before becoming the CPSU Central Committee’s General Secretary in 1985. Moreover, already before Gorbachev assumed this most powerful post in the former USSR, some political scientists like Oxford’s Archie Brown, had noted encouraging peculiarities in this party functionary’s biography and recommended special attention to this relatively young CPSU Secretary. For instance, the emerging new leader of the Soviet Union had, as a student, been friendly with a Czechoslovak communist who was later involved in the Prague Spring of 1968. Perhaps, most importantly, Gorbachev gave a speech in December 1984, i.e. before becoming General Secretary, in which he outlined much of what he would start doing two years later when he had more or less consolidated his position on the top of the CPSU, and launched perestroika.
Gorbachev’s experiences as a young man, his political rhetoric before becoming the Soviet Union’s leader, and his democratic reforms once he felt secure enough to launch them correspond with each other. A similar fit between rhetoric and action is to be expected in Medvedev’s further rise should the office of the President of the RF retain, at least, a part of its current prerogatives. Unless the Russian President becomes a mere figurehead similar to the German Federal President, Medvedev will acquire substantial powers within the next weeks. If he is able to consolidate his new position in the following couple of years, we should, at one point or another, expect that he will be trying to change Russia’s political system in a direction similar to that in which Gorbachev tried to stir the Soviet Union’s. Such a move by Medvedev is by no means destined to be successful as it will encounter stiff opposition by many of Moscow’s currently dominant elite groups.
Whatever the eventual outcome of such attempts to re-open the Russian political system may be, the period of relative macro-political stability in post-Soviet Russia will soon be over.
Why, in view of these prospects, Putin named Medvedev his successor, is an interesting question. Perhaps, the relationship between the outgoing and future Russian Presidents goes beyond a political partnership, and might have elements of a real personal friendship – something rarely found in politics. What might be also a factor is that Medvedev is one of the youngest members of Putin’s closer entourage. It has been said that Putin sees Medvedev, whose entire rise happened in the shadow of Putin, as his political son. Seeing himself as a statesman with a modern world-view, Putin might be purposefully intending to transfer power to a younger generation of politicians. More than any other politician on the top of Russia’s pyramid of power, Medvedev owes his current position to Putin alone.
Nevertheless, sooner or later it is to be expected that Medvedev’s deeper political beliefs – his apparently liberal and democratic views – will come to the fore. This would remind of the after-effects of late General Secretary Yurii Andropov’s promotion, in the early 1980s, of his younger ally Gorbachev within the CPSU Politbureau. The political outlook of Putin’s foster-son will eventually get into conflict with Putin’s political legacy of “managed democracy” – a paradox reminiscent, in some ways, of Gorbachev’s turn against the Soviet system that Andropov, clearly, wanted to preserve.
What, in view of this scenario, is to be expected in the future is that the legions of anti-Western nationalists in Russian politics, culture, journalism and academia will unite against Medvedev as they did in the late 1980s against Gorbachev. Back then, Russia’s nascent liberal-democratic movement (not to be confused with Zhirinovskii’s KGB-created Liberal-Democratic Party) was able stop the rising tide of anti-American obscurantism, and lead Russia on the path to a first attempt to seriously democratize.
Whether the coming conflict between pro- and anti-Western tendencies in Russia will be leading to a sustained second attempt to make Russia democratic and how Putin (in whatever role) will behave if confronted with such a situation are, however, issues one can only speculate about.
[A somewhat different version of this comment appeared earlier on the web site of Prospect-Magazine , No. 144, March 2008.]