The Disposable President

Poor Dmitry Medvedev. As if being the world’s first voluntary lame-duck president wasn’t bad enough, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has indicated he will rescind the only Medvedev reform that had any effect on the lives of ordinary Russians.

In a meeting with supporters of his presidential campaign on Tuesday, Putin said that he would consider reversing Medvedev’s abolishment of the seasonal time change. Working people have complained to Putin that they lose an hour of daylight in the winter because the sun now rises an hour later, while soccer fans have told him that they need to stay up an hour longer to watch matches in western Europe. Putin said Medvedev had based his decision on expert advice that dairy cows can’t be forced to give milk an hour earlier than their biological clocks allow.

At a convention of his ruling United Russia party in September, Putin revealed to the world that Medvedev’s purpose in life had been to keep the presidential seat warm for him because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive terms. Now, as the prime minister prepares for certain victory over four straw men in the March presidential election, he is busy erasing whatever traces remain of the Medvedev presidency.

Medvedev made modernization the catchword of his term in office, promising to kick Russia’s dependence on the export of natural resources, uproot corruption and end the “legal nihilism” of Russia’s criminal justice system. In 2009, a few days before his 44th birthday, Medvedev published a remarkable online manifesto (click here for the English translation), inviting his fellow citizens to join him in rejecting the country’s totalitarian past and transforming Russia into a Western-style democracy.

Alas, Medvedev’s great changes – as sincere as they may have been in intent – remained the stuff of speeches and bills. The only noticeable result of the Interior Ministry reform, for example, was that the communist-era “militia” was renamed “police.” Medvedev’s job was to stay the course, not rock the boat. His ill-considered decision to abolish winter time was as an act of desperation to change something, anything.

For Putin, Medvedev’s presidency never happened. Putin avoids mentioning his protégé in public. What’s more, he has appropriated the rhetoric of reform for his presidential campaign, as if the promise of Russia’s modernization was his own idea. In a series of voluminous articles published in Russia’s leading newspapers, Putin is regurgitating many of the same concepts that Medvedev laid out three-and-a-half years ago.

Putin’s writings appear to be a response to the middle-class demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest the Kremlin’s stranglehold on Russian politics. In each article, Putin identifies a particular challenge facing Russia, subjects it to sober analysis and then offers vague solutions that often contradict his own policies.

Lucian Kim

Putin appeals to low-income voters who depend on government largesse by appearing on national TV as the “good czar” to promise social benefits and scold bumbling regional leaders. Evidently he’s under the impression that he can reach Moscow liberals in a similar way by bombarding them with densely-worded treatises in their favorite newspapers.

Putin has mastered the art of telling people what they want to hear. In the past, this gift has been the key to his popularity. But in today’s climate of open dissent, it’s not clear that the message is getting through.

A week ago, Putin published an article entitled “Democracy and the Quality of Government” in the liberal daily Kommersant (click here for the official English translation) describing his vision for a Russian democracy with vigorous political competition, an active civil society and decentralization of power – all things he did his best to curb during his first two presidential terms. Putin writes about the difficulty of creating “genuine democracy,” essentially admitting that the rigid system he spent 12 years building hardly qualifies as such.

Lucian Kim

Putin’s laundry list of political imperatives is not a citizens’ call to action like Medvedev’s 2009 online manifesto. Instead, Putin uses the passive voice, leaving it entirely open who will be endowing the Russian state with “a new consciousness.” The only professional groups to which he appeals are “linguists and web designers,” whom he asks to help the government develop a citizen-friendly “interactive interface.” Putin, who has repeatedly said he has no time for the internet, is paying lip service to Russia’s wired intelligentsia, the brain behind the protest movement. Practically as an afterthought, he makes perfunctory mention of the fight against corruption and judicial reform.

Putin condemns sham democracy where “real politics is made behind the scenes and decisions aren’t discussed with voters at all.” He continues: “We need to avoid this kind of dead end, this temptation to ‘simplify politics’ and create a fictitious democracy.” The statement sounds extraordinary coming from Putin because it describes exactly Putin’s disclosure in September that he and Medvedev had agreed to swap the presidential post “years ago.”

Why should anybody believe Putin now? He offered an explanation when he met with political scientists after publication of his article (English transcript here). “Only now are we finishing the first stage of the post-Soviet period and can begin real movement forward,” he said. As for criticism that political liberalization should have started sooner, Putin said that this had been impossible either because the resources or conditions were lacking, or because there were other, more pressing priorities.

One of those priorities, Putin writes, was taking back the state from the small clique of oligarchs that had amassed enormous fortunes in the controversial privatizations following the collapse of communism. He recalls that politics in 1990s Russia was characterized by disputes between clans and semi-feudal power relations. Putin insists that his firm hand helped create the stability that allowed the now rebellious middle class to take root and blossom.

It is a circular argument that ignores the unprecedented oil boom that coincided with Putin’s first two terms and disregards the fact that new oligarchs, new clans and new feudal overlords have taken the old ones’ places.

“During my first and second presidential terms, the entire time I thought about what we could do so the fate of Russia doesn’t depend on one or two or three people,” Putin told the political scientists last week.

That assertion was all the more incredible given that four years after taking a break from the presidency, Putin still holds a one-man monopoly on political power in Russia.

There never even was a second man, not to mention a third.

One thought on “The Disposable President

Leave a Reply