Medvedev – Former President Who Was Never Really President

Given the fact that both his appointment as the head of the cabinet and as the leader of the ruling party come straight from Putin, we can come to a conclusion that Putin and Medvedev still have a cooperative relationship, and such a tandem will be maintained at least for the first half of Putin's term. interviewed Timothy Colton, Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

How would you assess Medvedev's presidency in general?

It's very hard to make a weighted judgment because of the unique sequencing of events in Russia. Normally when someone is elected head of state in a country with a directly-elected president, he serves his term or terms and then retires. The presidential office is the culmination of his career and the starting point of his new status as a former leader.

But none of these conditions apply in Russia. Apart from the fact that the elections themselves are not of the highest quality, we have to underline that Vladimir Putin, Russia's second president, left the office but didn't retire. He was obviously the power behind the scenes. He had more influence over events than the actual president, and now he is back. And so Medvedev enters into another kind-of anomalous status, of a young former president who in a certain sense was never really president at all.

Thus, the usual rules are not applicable, making an assessment of Medvedev’s presidency very difficult. However, his four years are an episode in Russia's post-communist political trajectory, being somewhere between completely insignificant at one extreme, and quite significant at another. He's not a very significant figure, he hasn't driven events or steered the country in a new direction, but it would not be fair to say he had no impact on Russia’s life.

Some experts say that one of his main initiatives was political reform. Was he successful, and why was it started during the end of his reign?

The second question is much more significant for understanding of the issue. During some of the interviews Dmitry Medvedev stressed that he had been thinking about the political reform from 2008 onward. Moreover, during his last interview as a President he pointed out the things that he had supported, including reducing the threshold for entry into the State Duma from 7% to 5% and more steps in the direction of general liberalization of the Russian politics. However, all of those were very minor, tinkering changes.

The question is why Medvedev, as it seems, became more ambitious at the very end of his term. Obviously it is strongly connected with the political crisis in Moscow, following the street demonstrations and the disputed elections. Public protests in December seemed to encourage Medvedev to think more boldly, and, which is at least as important, they probably convinced Putin not to stand in his way.

However, we have no evidence that Putin himself obstructed these changes earlier, but it would not be surprising. Vladislav Surkov was reported to say that he regrets that these changes were not put into effect in 2008 or 2009. Thus, taking into account Surkov’s close relations with Putin, the exact timing of the reform remains a mystery.

The reforms would be successful only if they are part of an evolutionary process towards getting Russia back on the track for democratization. Then they would leave their mark in Russia’s history – so that the politics of Russia, as an economically developed, European state, become better aligned with Russian society than they are right now.

The cynic might say that the reform is more cosmetic than real and the only success of the reform would be in diverting people from demanding more fundamental change. Yet, we shall not forget that the reform is at a very early stage and some parts of the reform are still in development. Thus, we will be able to judge and assess the reform only when we will see it actually work. The gubernatorial elections, one of the two main vectors of the reform, will not be very competitive due to a variety of filters. On the other hand, liberalization of the requirements for registration of political parties is quite a significant thing.

The last of the changes in the Russian politics to be discussed and proposed in any detail is the creation of a public television channel. And that's not going to take effect until about a year from now. The public television channel is the last initiative Medvedev spoke about, and it is potentially one of the most significant.

Now we have to see what comes of it. I would only add that if it turns out that all these changes come to nothing, then eventually Russia will have a political crisis of confidence in the regime. It is obvious for everyone. Nobody can say when the crisis will happen, but the probability is very high..

On the other major change that Medvedev proposed: police reform. Was it successful?

It is the first step in addressing a huge problem. The renaming of "militsia” is a relatively trivial thing. But the reform introduced legislative changes that will make it less likely that people accused of economic offenses are sent to jail.

But one has to appreciate that this problem is not just about the police. It's about the procurators, it's about the courts, and it's about Russian business and Russian society who see the organs of justice as tools to use in their own struggles. Of course, the police bear a significant responsibility, but they are by no means the only ones involved, and the problem has got to be addressed globally.

The proposed solution has not been very successful, therefore a lot will depend on what the new old president decides to do about it, and what he would try to do about it, and it is worth mentioning that he is somebody who in eight years as president did basically nothing about it. I don’t see any reasons for a different behavior now that Mr. Putin is back.

What are the three most important initiatives proposed by Medvedev, in your opinion?

Important in the sense of influencing developments, my list would include the liberalization of the law on parties that's now going through, and public television.

But the third one might be surprising, because it was the change in the Constitution in December 2008, which extended the presidential term from four to six years. That was important not because I consider this as a good idea by itself, but because, in a way, it helped to underscore the kind of stagnation of the regime from the Putin years, and the fact that little improvement could be expected until people started to rethink the general context of Russian politics and government. So it was important from that point of view – not that it was desirable, but that it sent a very clear message about the system. And these more recent changes are perhaps going to be modest beginnings at improving the system.

What will Medvedev's political future be as Prime Minister and as the leader of the ruling party, United Russia?

I wish we knew. There was speculation, of course, after the Duma election and after December protests, that Medvedev might actually not even become Prime Minister because Putin would be so determined to make some changes at the top because of this crisis of confidence. However, he became Prime Minister.

Given the fact that both his appointment as the head of the cabinet and as the leader of the ruling party come straight from Putin, we can come to a conclusion that Putin and Medvedev still have a cooperative relationship, and such a tandem will be maintained at least for the first half of Putin's term. Political situation in Russia can be shifted quickly, but since Medvedev’s standing comes from the very top, his position won’t be changed overnight.

These issues raise a more serious question as of Medvedev’s future after this and there are many variables. What are Putin's own intentions? Does Putin intend to serve just six years and then leave? We won't know this until five and half years from now. Is there any chance that Medvedev would actually seek an independent role? Are they going to take United Russia and split it in two, which some people expect? If this scenario is implemented, Medvedev would take over the more liberal, reform-minded new party in which case he would actually become a little bit more competitive within the ranks of the leadership.

But these things are all very speculative. Even Russian media and experts say that Medvedev's new position as head of the party means that he is going to die politically, just the same way the party itself is going to die. However, Putin does seem, as always, to have a zapasnoi aerodrom (a backup plan). In this case he has a group of friends and supporters as an alternative to United Russia.

Medvedev will be the second most powerful person in the country for the next two or three years. And then we'll see what happens halfway through Putin's first new term. It'll become clear what basic direction he's headed in and it will determine where Medvedev is going to fit. Will Putin decide several years from now – maybe two years from now – that he wants to hold new Duma elections, or that he wants to bring in a more decisive reformist as prime minister to change things in the economy? The obvious candidates there would be Kudrin or Prokhorov, somebody who is a relatively new face. And it's at that point that life may get a little bit more dangerous for Medvedev.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.