As Russia prepares for the inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev on 7 May, the mystery surrounding the next president continues to grow. Putin seems to have done everything possible to stay in control, making it difficult for the Kremlin to finesse the gesture politics that will no doubt accompany the event. Too muted a lift-off, and Medvedev will look like Putin’s mini-me; too much and the Kremlin risks disrupting the key message for the domestic audience: that they should carry on deferring to the same old elite, which is still very much in charge.
Medvedev has yet to be given the space to prove he can be his own man. If he is ultimately to break with some of the worst aspects of Putinism, he must be judged by deeds not words, but there have been few of either since his election in March. If anything, the trend has been in the opposition direction. Putin was under a lot of pressure from the so-called ‘siloviki’ (men of force) to stand for another term as president. Having opted for the supposedly ‘liberal’ Medvedev instead, Putin’s priority has been to demonstrate that continuity will be guaranteed in other ways.
Putin has already agreed to be Prime Minister. On 15 April he accepted a new post as chairman of the ruling United Russia party, of which he is not even a member. United Russia controls 315 out of 450 seats in the Duma, a constitutional majority. Putin, the former KGB man, is also assumed likely to run the security services, who are hardly likely to take orders from someone they do not recognise as one of their own (Medvedev is disparaged by them in private as a silver spoon son of St. Petersburg academics). Putin is also reportedly constructing a new system of control over regional governors, run by the Cabinet and enforced by the siloviki.
These moves are designed to signal that Medvedev will have no real domestic agenda. The Putin elite is also doubling up insurance mechanisms to minimise the possibility of Medvedev eventually having a ‘Yukos moment’, equivalent to the manner in which Putin himself, back in 2003, used the seizure of Russia’s largest independent company to break free of the succession deal he had arranged with Yeltsin back in 2000.
Putin has also been putting down foreign policy markers to box Medvedev in. Putin’s bravura performance at the NATO summit in Bucharest was designed to show he will remain in charge. Putin’s 16 April decree establishing direct official relations with quasi-state structures in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions in Georgia, was the first more-or-less open challenge to post-Soviet borders since 1991. Such a radical step does not signal the end of a presidency. It points instead to a new era of Putin 2.0, with an even more assertive policy in Russia’s ‘near abroad’.
But if Medvedev’s role in foreign policy will also be limited, the Kremlin is seriously risking underselling the key propaganda point that the new presidency will begin with some kind of overture to the West. Even the recent gossip about Putin’s love life puts him once again at centre stage. What, in short, is there left for President Medvedev to do?
The West is understandably unsure how to respond. The key for the outside world is to understand that it is but one element in the Kremlin’s calibration. It can change the calibration, but Russia in its current mood is highly resistant to direct outside influence. The West’s role must be to help shape a space in which Medvedev can develop, rather than rushing to embrace him as a symbol of change which has yet to take place.
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