Elected to become Russia’s new president, will Dmitry Medvedev make his own mark on Russia or continue along the course set by his predecessor?
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As the end of Vladimir Putin’s eight-year presidency approached, Russia and the world prepared with uncertainty for political transition. Speculation was rampant on the “how,” the “who” and even the “when.” Many expected that Mr. Putin would retain some degree of power. Certainly, the majority of the Russian population, and much of the world, recognized that the Putin administration had returned Russia, at least in part, to its former glory.
In 2005, Mr. Putin appointed Dmitry Medvedev to the newly created post of First Deputy Prime Minister, thus introducing Mr. Medvedev to the international community, and setting the stage for the eventual handover. It was as early as 1999, when Mr. Putin became the acting president of Russia, that Mr. Medvedev became his protégé.
Expectations regarding the March 2008 election abounded in speculating how different the new president and his country would be. There were some hopeful indications that Mr. Medvedev would take Russia on a slightly more liberal path. However, there was concern regarding how much actual power he would have with Mr. Putin “stepping down” to the position of prime minister.
Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev was born Sept. 14, 1965, to a middle-class family in suburban Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He attended St. Petersburg State University, graduating with a law degree and doctorate in 1990, where he taught as an assistant professor until 1999.
While teaching, Mr. Medvedev joined the legal team of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who had also brought ex-KGB agent and future president Vladimir Putin into his city’s administration. There the two aspiring politicians worked together for five years. At the end of Mr. Sobchak’s term, Mr. Medvedev returned to academic life, while Mr. Putin took a position at the Kremlin.
In late 1999, after becoming acting-president of Russia, Mr. Putin almost immediately brought Mr. Medvedev to Moscow. In 2000, Mr. Medvedev headed Vladimir Putin’s presidential election campaign. Following his victory, Mr. Putin made Dmitry Medvedev his First Deputy Chief of Staff.
Also in 2000, the Russian government appointed Mr. Medvedev chairman of the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom. Mr. Medvedev proved to be an able administrator, becoming President Putin’s Chief of Staff in 2003.
By 2005, Mr. Medvedev became Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, in charge of national projects. As such, he oversaw major initiatives in agriculture, health, education, and efforts to boost Russia’s low birth rate. He also helped restructure the Kremlin’s relations with the powerful billionaire oligarchs, who had made their fortunes when Russian businesses were privatized after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but were somewhat ostracized during the Putin years.
In January 2007, Mr. Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “We aim to create big Russian corporations and will back their foreign economic activities...Even if the state retains a controlling interest...we aim to create public companies with a substantial share of foreign investment in their capital” (BBC).
Privately, Mr. Medvedev, at age 23, joined the Russian Orthodox Church. He also married his high school sweetheart Svetlana, with whom he has one son, Ilya, born in 1996.
Russia Profile, a magazine published by RIA Novosti news agency, stated that Mr. Medvedev swims nearly one mile twice a day, and is otherwise “studious, mild-mannered, and quiet.”
In December 2007, President Putin announced that Mr. Medvedev would be his heir apparent, pending the outcome of the March 2008 election. At the time, Mr. Putin said, “I have known him for more than 17 years, I have worked with him very closely all these years” (BBC).
Mr. Medvedev responded by stating that Vladimir Putin would serve as his prime minister. This raised questions as to where Russia’s executive power would lie, as the move provided the opportunity for Mr. Putin to someday return to the presidency.
The election campaign featured a poster of both men with the slogan “Together We Will Win.” The campaign also used the slogan “Freedom is better than no freedom,” which some interpreted as a hint of openness to the West. This was uncharacteristic of the Putin administration.
It could, however, also be a statement to the Russian people that the relative freedom and prosperity that they enjoy now is better than the repression and poverty experienced during the Soviet years. Today, they are once again able to feel some nationalistic pride, which many attribute to Mr. Putin.
The government of the Russian Federation and the political process, by which it forms, has operated under the following basic premises since the approval of its constitution in 1993:
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica and the BBC.
Mr. Medvedev won the election by a landslide. While some outside observers considered it to be an unfair process, most admitted the outcome reflected the will of the Russian people.
At a celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, Mr. Medvedev announced, “We will be able to preserve the course of President Putin” (ibid.).
The London Times reported that the president was Russia’s youngest leader since Nicholas II was crowned Tsar in 1894. The article also indicated that many of Russia’s political elite consider the Medvedev presidency to be a temporary measure until Mr. Putin can return to the post, possibly in 2012.
The relative youth of Mr. Medvedev has enabled him (and Mr. Putin) to reach out to a younger generation, one that came of age during the height of the Cold War, experienced the struggles of perestroika as young adults, and more recently have begun to enjoy the prosperity of the new Russia as they approach middle age. This generation appreciates what Mr. Putin has done in restoring Russian pride and power—but also acknowledges his authoritarianism.
Mr. Medvedev has said that Russia will continue along the path of economic development set forth by President Putin, while also calling for increased independence of the judiciary system and less state interference in the economy.
He also declared that freedom was the most important issue for any prosperous modern state: “I mean freedom in all its manifestations—personal freedom, economic freedom, finally freedom of expression” (The London Times).
Skeptics remain wary, however, suggesting Mr. Medvedev will have to rely on Mr. Putin to control his fellow siloviki, the Kremlin-hardliners in the military and secret police (most of whom Mr. Putin installed), who favored Mr. Medvedev’s rival, Sergei Ivanov (the second of two First Deputy Prime Ministers, and Minister of Defense from 2001-07).
So far, it appears to be “business as usual” in Russia, with authorities continuing their usual crackdown on social activists and political critics, according to the International Herald Tribune. “Medvedev today is Putin yesterday. There is no change in the regime whatsoever,” said veteran human rights campaigner Lev Ponomarev.
“We’ve seen in this last two months what the freedom [Mr. Medvedev] talks about really means,” Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Mr. Putin and now a prominent critic, told reporters. “Are there any examples of real actions, not just words, that someone can use as proof that Medvedev is a liberal person, economically, politically or over civil rights?”
The Economist stated that in a new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Andrew Wilson of University College London concludes that at first, the Russian system will have more control over Mr. Medvedev. The article also stated that despite the desire to retain the status quo, Russia would be a different place in a year’s time.
In the meantime, President Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit in late February to Serbia, and played a significant role in solving the near-crisis with Ukraine. He also hosted, at Mr. Putin’s request, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during which Mr. Medvedev said, “We highly appreciate your coming here and consider the visit as a continuation of the strategic cooperation and partnership that has traditionally existed between Russia and the Federative Republic of Germany” (Xinhua).
Otherwise, it appears that a Medvedev-led Russia will largely continue along the course set forth by Vladimir Putin. Some cosmetic shifts to increased freedoms may come at the hands of its new president, but this will only endear it to the world, in particular, the Europeans.