Dmitry Medvedev: Russia’s faux reformist

He preaches openness, but he has made little progress

The first serious sign of a split within the Kremlin arose a week ago, when President Dmitry Medvedev fired a key aide, Mikhail Lesin. The media adviser and former minister became the most senior person to exit from the administration, fanning increasingly heated speculation that the president may be breaking away from his mentor and predecessor, prime minister and former president Vladimir Putin, with whom Lesin was closely linked.

The sacking of a Kremlin insider wouldn’t, on its own, have raised eyebrows. Lately, however, Medvedev has been going out of his way to distance himself from the harsher elements of the Putin era: its authoritarian politics, isolationist bent, and “seriously distorted” perception of human rights. He has bemoaned the “backwardness” of the governing party, United Russia, the country’s “shamefully low” competitiveness, and rampant corruption (currently, an estimated one-third of Russian gross domestic product goes to paying bribes). This fall, Medvedev, who is nearing the halfway point of his term, bundled these themes into “Forward, Russia!”, a manifesto that reads like a platform for a liberal reformer, leading to whispered musings about Mevedev the modernizer, the Obama of Russia.

It’s a convincing narrative—“until you look at the facts,” says London-based Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War. Under Medvedev, media has not become any freer, free speech has been increasingly stifled, and the number of murders and attacks on journalists and human-rights activists has actually increased. Indeed, “the discrepancy between Medvedev’s ideas of dynamicism and democratic transparency,” the Financial Times Deutschland wrote in an editorial last week, “are so far from reality as to sound grotesque.”

“Few in Russia take Medvedev seriously, or believe he has the talent or the resources to modernize,” says Lilia Shevtsova, the Moscow author of Putin’s Russia. A “general with no army,” concurs Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a top expert on Russia’s political elite, noting that 85 per cent of key Kremlin posts are still held by Putin allies. This includes the police, the military, and the FSB, the secret police, where power struggles are traditionally decided.

Indeed, some continue to suggest that Putin, rumoured to want the presidential post once again since stepping down in 2008 due to constitutional constraints, is pulling the strings, allowing Medvedev, his toothless marionette, to take tentative steps, adopt his own tone, even sack a Kremlin insider—“an orchestrated good cop/bad cop routine,” says former Clinton White House adviser on Russia Mark Medish. This keeps the public guessing, and knocks the opposition off balance, he adds. It has also given Medvedev a window to discuss the economic crisis, and Russian fault in it: the country’s distressing lack of competitiveness, and its “humiliating” dependence on raw materials. The economic downturn hit Russia harder than almost anywhere else, says Samuel Greene, an expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “Even in Russia, it would be untenable to ignore that reality,” he says.

The “litmus test” on Medvedev’s democratic bona fides, says Shevtsova, came with the decision whether or not to proceed with a second trial for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos oil company. The 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, on charges of tax evasion and fraud, ended with the destruction of Yukos (which, after being pushed into bankruptcy, was swallowed by the state-owned oil company, Rosneft—the first in a series of re-nationalizations of Russia’s fattest companies).

Khodorkovsky, a Putin rival who dared challenge the president’s authority, earned an eight-year prison sentence; it ends in 2011, one year ahead of Russia’s next presidential election.

For Medvedev, freeing Khodorkovsky, currently imprisoned in a Siberian work camp, could have signalled the fundamental philosophical and political shift he says he is committed to making. It could also have made Medvedev a force within Russia, earned him praise from the West, and removed the Yukos stain that hovers over the Kremlin to this day, says Lucas. To do that, however, he would have had to overrule Putin, and all those who benefited from the dismantling of Yukos. In the end, say experts, the decision was likely moot: Khodorkovsky’s absurdist, second trial on charges of embezzlement, now entering its 10th month, is a showpiece of political repression designed to keep Khodorkovsky in jail “until he rots,” says Washington-based expert Martha Olcott, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

To some, Medvedev’s recent speeches have evoked memories of perestroika and glasnost, and comparisons to modernizer and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, with a single act, the 1986 release of Andrei Sakharov—the Soviet Union’s most famous political dissident—signalled radical change: that his liberalization was real, Sakharov later explained, not mere “theatre” but “sincere, true and genuine.” In Medvedev’s case, the new trial for Khodorkovsky, who has said he does not understand the charges against him and could face 22 more years in prison, epitomizes the “legal nihilism” the president is vowing to combat, and sends the opposite signal entirely.