In 2000, George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and claimed he had found a soulmate for the West. Today, Western leaders may be about to repeat the same mistake with Dmitry Medvedev.
In 2000, George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and claimed he had found a soulmate for the West - what followed was the restoration of authoritarian rule in Russia. Today, Western leaders may well be about to repeat the same mistake with Dmitry Medvedev.
Sunday's election will be a coronation rather than a competition. Medvedev's only opponents will be has-beens from the 1990s like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who long ago converted into Kremlin loyalists; and Andrey Bogdanov, a fake ‘democrat' run by the Kremlin to convince the West that a real contest is taking place.
It is therefore surprising that Medvedev should be hailed by so many in the West as a ‘liberal'. Is this just because we have been manoeuvred into fearing someone worse, a sabre-rattling ‘silovik' (past or present member of the security services), like former Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov? Or does Medvedev represent a genuine opportunity to unfreeze the recent mini Cold War between Russia and the West?
Medvedev is indeed personable. Putin's background was in the KGB, Medvedev is a lawyer, who has attacked Russia's "legal nihilism" and denounced the fashionable concept of ‘sovereign democracy'. Medvedev is familiar to the business world after seven years as Chairman of the Board at Gazprom. He can talk the talk at Davos. He wears nice suits. He does not look like an archetypal post-Soviet bureaucrat or KGB agent. He is a big fan of 1970s rockers Deep Purple.
But we need to understand the system that made Medvedev, before rushing to embrace a ‘new face' which may turn out to be only a cosmetic improvement. Russia's problem is not that it is an imperfect democracy, but that its politics is corrupted by so-called ‘political technology'. This involves much more than just stuffing the ballot box.
‘Political technology' means secretly sponsoring fake politicians like Mr Bogdanov, setting up fake NGOs and youth movements like Nashi (‘Ours') to prevent any Russian version of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and mobilising the voters against a carefully-scripted ‘enemy'. It 1996 this was the Communists; in 1999-2000 the Chechens; in 2003-04 it was the ‘oligarchs'. Now it is us - the supposedly hostile West and the threat of ‘coloured revolutions' to Russia's hard-won stability.
Medvedev may find all or some of this personally distasteful, but Russia now has an entire industry of political manipulation that is hardly likely to disappear overnight.
We also need to understand the mechanics of Russian succession politics. In the Russian context ‘liberal' does not actually mean much more than opposing the ‘siloviki'. It means being in a different clan, at a different part of the feeding trough. The uncertainties of the succession have created a covert war for property and influence between a handful of different clans, but the system cannot afford an outright winner. In recent months the most powerful clan led by the Deputy Head of Kremlin Administration Igor Sechin, whose Rosneft company received the biggest chunk of Yukos in 2004, has threatened to engulf the others.
Rebalancing the system, in other words, was the key reason for choosing Medvedev - not any sudden desire to reverse the increasingly illiberal course Russia has taken since 2003. Putin's ambition to stay in office as prime minister is also rooted in this rebalancing act. He needs to stay on as Medvedev's ‘minder' to keep any one clan from assuming control over the others. Medvedev and the siloviki heartily dislike each other. Sechin and Ivanov will be watching the new president closely for any signs of ‘weakness'. Medvedev will not become his own man until he can cut free.
Putin himself observed his succession deal with Yeltsin for about three years. It is often forgotten that Yeltsin men like Voloshin and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, before the latter became an enemy of the Kremlin and had to be forced out of this year's campaign, survived in office until the ‘Yukos affair' in 2003-04. Medvedev may have his own ‘Yukos moment' in time, but we should not assume he is an independent player until he does.
European governments can therefore welcome Medvedev's election, but their response should be carefully calibrated to the extent of real change he is able to make. Europe should avoid repeating the over-reaction of many European leaders when Putin took over from the ailing Yeltsin in 2000. There should be no race to be Medvedev's new best friend, no staring into his eyes and no speculating about his soul. We should also concentrate on what he does, not on what he says. Russia's real transition is likely to come sometime after the election, when and if the new president begins to define the system, more than the other way around.
Download our full report entitled Meeting Medvedev: The Politics of the Putin Succession, published on 28 February, 2008.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.