Russia Profile
May 11, 2012

Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev's Legacy as President

Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Eric Kraus, Andrei Tsygankov


Now that Dmitry Medvedev has handed over power to his friend Vladimir Putin and has taken his place at the helm of the Russian government as prime minister, it's time to take stock of his one-term presidency and his historic legacy. Will he go down in history as a great visionary, or a weak and pretentious leader who provided liberal political cover to perpetuate the personal-cult regime of Vladimir Putin? Has Medvedev been a genuine modernizer or was he simply faking modernization to let the steam out? Was he ever president?

Most of the commentary on Medvedev's presidency in Western and Russian media has been negative. His record is usually assessed as disappointingly thin. Few of the reforms initiated during his term have been completed (reducing the number of time zones and eliminating the winter daylight savings time are perhaps the most "successful"). Many observers point to the vast disconnect between Medvedev's lofty promises of political and economic liberalization and their "virtually non-existent implementation," according to Andrei Ryabov of Moscow's Carnegie Center.

This could be partly explained by the fact that Medvedev was never intended to be a strong president, as Putin continued to wield decisive power within the tandem as Russia's most powerful prime minister and the leader of the United Russia Party.

As U.S. political analyst Don Jensen notes in his commentary to the Voice of America Russian Service, Putin picked Medvedev as a successor for his weakness and his inability to challenge Putin, as well as for his ideological compatibility with Russia's national leader. "Medvedev was never a liberal systemic reformer when he moved into the Kremlin, even if the West and some Russian intellectuals wanted to see it that way," Jensen writes. "Instead, he was a figure younger than Putin who could ensure continuity but who had long been socialized into the same system by a different set of experiences."

Some commentators argued that Medvedev's modernizing rhetoric ("freedom is better than non-freedom," etc.) and his meek efforts at political liberalization and combating corruption have nevertheless created the atmosphere and the political space for the rise of the politically active Russian middle class, which would benefit from his belated political reforms and press for deeper reforms (easing party registration and a return to popular elections of governors, albeit with strong Kremlin controls over the process).

Evgeny Gontmakher of the Institute of Contemporary Development, who has advised Medvedev in some capacity, argues that the disconnect between Medvedev's lofty pro-democracy rhetoric and his inability to deliver has actually served a useful purpose ­ it delegitimized "the Putin system," making its shortcomings and pervasive corruption obvious. Gontmakher argues that Medvedev has stimulated the disappointment that the Russian people feel toward the powers that be, making them more demanding of their rulers and more eager to press for change.

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky argues that by discrediting the institution of the Russian presidency and by destroying the sacred legitimacy of the "Putin system" Medvedev has helped prepare the Russian society for a transition to a European parliamentary system without the all too powerful president.

Still, those opposing the regime have argued that Medvedev's presidency has served to provide political cover and popular legitimacy to the continued absolutist rule by Putin. As Lilia Shevtsova of Moscow's Carnegie Center noted in a recent commentary, Medvedev has helped Putin broaden the political base of his "personalistic" regime by bringing into the government services many liberal intellectuals who would have otherwise steered clear of giving advice to Putin. Shevtsova further argues that Medvedev's lofty liberal rhetoric has served to discredit many important tenets of liberal ideology by showing it as being phony, empty and deceptive. She claims that Medvedev's flirtation with liberal values has helped Putin's team gain political legitimacy in the West and fooled Western governments, particularly U.S. President Barack Obama (and his principal Russia advisor Mike McFall) into believing that the Russian regime was indeed evolving toward a more open and pluralistic system, prompting some Western partners to eschew the tough rhetoric toward Russia and switch over to "a constructive approach" under which Russia would be left alone to mind its domestic affairs. Shevtsova believes that Medvedev was the last Russian leader to "play with democratization," as Putin would have to tighten the screws to maintain his grip on power.

Others, like Fyodor Lukyanov of Russia in Global Affairs, argue that Medvedev's foreign policy legacy is quite positive. His principal achievement has been to ensure that Russia is being treated as a serious and responsible regional power, which picks its fights wisely, sorting out its interests, and does not unnecessarily irritate its partners. Lukyanov believes that Medvedev has restored Russia's role as an indispensible international power without which one cannot engineer important geopolitical outcomes, as the West has found out in the case of Syria.

What will be Medvedev's true legacy? Will he go down in history as a great visionary or a weak and pretentious leader who provided liberal political cover to perpetuate the personal cult regime of Vladimir Putin? Has Medvedev been a genuine modernizer intent on liberating Russia from the societal, economic and political ills that hamper its development? Or was he simply faking modernization to let the steam out to help consolidate Putin's grip on power? Was he ever president?

Andrei P. Tsygankov, Professor, International Relations/Political Science, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA

It is true that Medvedev was not an impressive president. The presidency requires strong leadership skills, whereas Medvedev, by his nature, is more of a team player than a leader.

Nevertheless, Medvedev's four years have been far from a waste. Although he failed to act on many of his initiatives ­ fighting corruption, media openness, privatization and greater freedom for business, energy diversification, stronger oversight over state corporations and security agencies ­ he deserves credit for articulating their importance. Many Russians will remember him as a "talker," who nevertheless said all the right things. By doing so, Medvedev raised the bar for Putin who will now have to deliver on Medvedev's initiatives precisely because they are on the public's mind.

Whatever one may hear from "liberal" commentators, Putin did not merely select Medvedev to warm up the seat for Putin's return. Putin also wanted to restore the intra-elite balance between the liberals and the "siloviki" and extend the social contract to a growing middle class. On that score, Medvedev performed quite well judging by both the rise of social protest and by how many people still voted for Putin as the next president.

Finally, Medvedev also deserves credit for the "reset" in foreign relations. Again, a number of his initiatives ­ the pan-European security pact, a joint missile-defense system with the West, a non-veto of the UN Libya resolution, and some others ­ did not work the way Medvedev hoped. Nevertheless, each of these initiatives was important for improving relations with the West in the post-Georgia war environment. Indeed, on the foreign policy front Medvedev has some real accomplishments, including the START treaty, Russian-U.S. cooperation on Afghanistan, and the WTO.

In short, Medvedev helped to set the agenda for reforming Russia's model of a strong state, thereby assisting Putin as the real leader of the country. Whether Putin will take advantage of Medvedev's help remains to be seen. In the meantime, as a good team player, Medvedev should continue to be a part of the tandem until another suitable successor is found.

Eric Kraus, Private Fund Manager, Moscow

One is left almost breathless by the idiocy of much that is written about Russian politics.

The fundamental problem is one of ideology ­ a plurality of the Russian chattering classes, and the Atlantic Kommentariat en bloc, takes the superiority of the Western system as a given ­ and, in a wonderful parody of Marxist thinking, let the actual outcomes be damned!

Western democracy washes whiter. This despite the specter of deadly political paralysis in America, and the collective economic/social hara-kiri being conducted in Europe, several countries of which look to join Argentina ­ a once first­world country which crashed back into the third world. Yet the fundamental premises of a system that produced such catastrophic outcomes is never seriously questioned.

The problem with Putin is that there is so little mystery ­ if one wishes to know what he thinks, read his words carefully. In an interview shortly before he selected Medvedev, Putin admitted that he did not see himself as a reformer; he could never have done what Boris Yeltsin did. And having succeeded far beyond any reasonable expectations in establishing Russia as a relatively wealthy major Eurasian power, he was clearly cognizant that continued development implied further and more complex reforms.

Therein lies the rub. While the word "reform" gets hearts beating, it consists of choosing reforms that are beneficial, bearing in mind the catastrophes of the Yeltsin years, due in large part to an earnest attempt to reform by aping a particular "Anglo-Saxon" economic model presented as the sole conceivable option. There were, in fact, numerous alternative options ­ notably the Scandinavian, the German, and the Chinese models. None of them would be entirely appropriate, however.

Having grown up in the Soviet Union, Medvedev looked to the West for an alternative to a failed and stagnant Soviet socio-economic system, naturally assuming that if the Kremlin was "evil," then Washington must be "good." His naiveté was quickly challenged with the U.S.-sponsored Georgian invasion of South Ossetia ­ and by the deeply dishonest coverage in the Western press, in which he had once had such childlike faith (the BBC stands alone in having had the honesty to retract much of its initial coverage).

Unfortunately, having failed to draw the obvious lesson, Medvedev's fate was sealed when he was tricked into supporting the Libya resolution in the UN, hijacked as a justification for regime change ­ a betrayal that explains Russia's more muscular Syria policy. On the international front, Putin has clearly been back in charge for the past 18 months, driving Russia's very successful Eurasian strategy and toward an increasingly meaningful realignment with China.

If one chooses to judge Medvedev's domestic accomplishments against the starry-eyed rhetoric, then of course he failed. But judged in absolute terms, he has been modestly successful. Russia has continued to reform, at what can only be described as a "Russian" pace ­ far slower than, say, China, but much faster than Belgium. A self-conscious middle-class has been created ex-nihilo; the corporate sector has evolved from the hunter-gatherer stage, through rent seeking into a mixed state-private, profit-driven resource-based system with an increasingly important services component.

For "innovation" one would be advised to wait a while longer. Russian demographics have seen a startling improvement and are now better than Italy, Germany or Japan. Both fiscal policy and the private financial system are now substantially more stable than nearly all of Russia's Western peers, and the recent reforms of capital markets will likely bring the Russian market closer to international standards. In per-capita terms, Russia is the largest recipient of FDI of the BRICs countries. GDP growth is a below potential, but remains the highest of the G8.

Putin's next term will likely be short on surprises. Russia will evolve toward a German social model. Igor Sechin will continue to clear out the Aegean stables of the state company boards. Continued slow progress will be seen on the corruption front ­ miracles should not be expected. Thrill-seeking finance jockeys and journalists have recently been seen migrating toward Latin America or China.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

The assessment of Medvedev's presidency from a narrow perspective of what could be called "political reformism" (referring to either the making or the not making of political reforms) misses the point of governance: any government's primary mission is the safety and material welfare of its constituency.

There is the myth of Medvedev's mission to implement "liberal political reforms" (interpreted as the sharing of substantial power with certain individuals, who could not democratically convince the Russian electorate of their worthiness to govern the country). Those same politicians who grew increasingly disappointed and angry with Medvedev when he did not fulfill their fantasies promoted this myth.

Genuine political liberalization, done constructively and with lasting effects, is not a four-year project. In fact, a president with a six-year term of office, perhaps re-elected for a total of 12 years in power, has a much better chance to implement extensive and lasting reforms. The key success factor is society's overall ability to absorb and profitably use change ­ there are some natural cycles involved there which no amount of artificial acceleration can overcome.

Russia's last extensive and truly successful modernization, including substantial political liberalization (relative to the precursor conditions), was enacted by Tsar Alexander II, from 1856 to 1881, when he was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists. The reforms took 25 years, by a chief executive (in modern terms) who had had 30 years of prior preparation for his position: a specialist education, plus 15 years of practical assignments with progressing responsibility. If he had not been murdered at age 63, Alexander II could have ruled and continued his political reforms for another ten years or so. Some of Tsar Alexander's institutions ­ a professional judiciary, for example ­ dismantled by the Bolsheviks have not yet been fully restored in Russia even now.

Compare the above with the four years allotted to Medvedev. Also, keep in mind that most of his tenure occurred during the global economic crisis, which Russia handled remarkably well, continuing most economic initiatives under seriously adverse external conditions. This alone is a substantial achievement and a significant legacy.

In addition to handling Russia's response to the global economic crisis, Medvedev continued policies of macroeconomic growth. There was rebuilding of dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure and the extension of basic modern resources and services (such as household gas lines) to parts of Russia which even at the beginning of the 21st century remain far behind in terms of development.

Russia's political situation is not due to systemic or structural causes. It is driven by human factors ­ legacy, habits and customs; value systems developed in antiquated and totalitarian conditions; and political patronage shaped by the Soviet one-party political system. Human factors cannot be "reformed away" and there is no magical system or structure that will make society act responsibly, humanely, and wisely. The Marxists tried to create such systems and their failure everywhere in the world proves the point.

Russia's political maturing is a process of evolutionary growth that will take decades. Meanwhile, Russia's government must continue to function, providing ­ among other things ­ the basic stability in which the political evolution of society can continue. One cannot build a roof on a house under constant earthquakes.

Medvedev as president delivered much, but modern Russian revolutionaries will not recognize his legacy, because he did not deliver the revolution that they desire. It is reasonable to suppose that he did deliver what Russia's majority electorate wants ­ political continuity and steady progress. In a true democracy, the majority of the voters have the final say.