President for a single term and a lame duck head of state since the fall, Dmitry Medvedev steps down on May 7 after four years in the Kremlin. But how will he be remembered at home and abroad and what, if any, is the legacy of the man who was both Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor and predecessor?
From the moment of his inauguration in a glistening ceremony at the State Kremlin Palace in May 2008, the odds were always going to be stacked against Dmitry Medvedev and his attempt to leave his mark on a presidency that his critics saw as little more than a political convenience.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the president of Russia, Vladimir…” boomed out the host at an energy forum in St. Petersburg around a month after Medvedev had taken on the role of head of state. The announcer, to his credit, corrected his error before the word “Putin” had left his lips.
Medvedev laughed and smiled, barely breaking step as he moved toward the stage. But the mistake would come to symbolize his presidency as he struggled – and failed – to shake off the shadow of his powerful mentor, who had been forced to stand down by a Constitution that forbid more than two consecutive stints in the Kremlin, but was silent on subsequent terms.
The day after his inauguration, Russia’s new president nominated Vladimir Putin as prime minister, setting the stage for the two men to rule the largest country in the world in tandem – or as a leaked U.S. embassy in Moscow memorably put it in 2010, with Medvedev as “Robin to Putin’s Batman.”
Standing at just 163cm, Medvedev was shorter than even the diminutive Putin, and was quickly dubbed Russia’s “nano-president” by bloggers, whose increased role in society, ironically, the new man in the Kremlin would do much to advance.
And when Medvedev announced last September that he would not be seeking reelection in order to back the return of Putin – “the most authoritative politician in our country” – he left himself wide open for allegations of political irrelevance – and worse. True, Putin had agreed to nominate him for the position of prime minister, but there were those, including among his own advisors, who doubted his suitability for the post.
It was an inglorious end to a presidency that, for a short time at least, had promised much.
A Deep Purple-loving rock fan with bookish looks and manners and a passion for technology, Medvedev was initially hailed by Russia’s middle class and Western commentators as a liberalizing force, an antidote to the tough-talking, former KGB officer Putin. Crucially, or so it seemed, he was also the first Russian leader whose political views had not been forged in service of the Soviet system.
And despite his undoubted loyalty to fellow St. Petersburg native Putin, Medvedev, a former lawyer and ex-head of Russian energy giant Gazprom, would demonstrate occasional apparent flashes of independence throughout his four years in office, seeming to criticize Putin indirectly on issues such as Libya and the jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“Freedom is better than non-freedom,” Medvedev said early on in his presidency, and when unprecedented anti-Putin and government protests broke out in December of last year, it was the president who, according to Russian media reports citing Kremlin insiders, gave the direct order for police to employ soft-handed tactics. And it was also Medvedev who, in the wake of this dissent, would propose wide-reaching reforms to return some of the political freedoms clamped down on by Putin in 2004 to combat what he called the “epidemic of collapse” threatening national security.
But despite Medvedev’s trumpeting of a “more open society,” these reforms have yet to be implemented in full. Medvedev likewise failed to make headway on his stated goals of modernization, liberalization and eradicating the country’s age-old culture of corruption. On corruption, he admitted in early 2011 that his campaign had seen “almost no success,” confessing that the skeptics who had predicted he would fail to eliminate the graft that sees Russia consistently hover around 150th place in Berlin-based NGO Transparency International’s corruption index were “absolutely right.” But in his last address to the State Council in late April, Medvedev sounded a more defiant note, vowing that the fight to wean Russians off bribes and kickbacks was not yet over.
For many though, Medvedev’s pledge to continue the battle against graft when he shifts to the post of prime minister was just more of the empty words that his critics say characterized his presidency.
“A lot was announced during his presidency, but very little was done,” said Yelena Pozdnyakova, analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “People had invested their hopes in Medvedev, but were ultimately disappointed by him.”
“Medvedev has not left any clear impression,” said analyst Sergei Mikheyev of the Center for Political Assessment, “it’s not possible to say exactly what he stood for.”
“He acted in a fairly contradictory manner, and this amorphous nature of his rule and actions mean it is impossible to form a firm opinion about him,” he added. “He will be remembered as a second-rate president who was controlled by Putin.”
And, as many suggested, one who tried a little too hard to seem like him. Within months of becoming president, the normally soft-spoken Medvedev’s voice underwent a not-so subtle change, with the introduction of a terser speaking style, one that recalled nothing so much as the mannerisms of his predecessor in office.
“This was almost certainly deliberate,” said Pozdnyakova, “and was done to make Medvedev seem like the kind of president that the vast majority of the Russian electorate expects – a tough, stern leader.”
But if Medvedev’s rule failed to live up to initial expectations, his years in power would see a revival of a passion for politics not witnessed since the early 1990s in Russia. The country’s liberal “creative classes,” as newly affluent, educated Russians became known during Medvedev’s tenure, might not have been empowered by the country’s youngest leader for a century, but there was little doubt they had been emboldened.
Putin may have tried to take the credit for the bright, young Russians who swarmed onto the streets to protest his rule last winter, labeling them a product of his management of the country since 2000, but many believed it was no coincidence that the startling politicization of a generation previously dismissed as apathetic and gadget-obsessed had come about under Medvedev.
“Medvedev created an atmosphere – through his dramatic criticism of the situation – in which the middle class could become politicized,” said Alexander Rahr, director of the Berlin-based Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia. “He mobilized young people for change.”
“He attempted to conduct liberal policy, but was only half-successful,” Rahr added. “Maybe he didn’t have the right people to work with, or couldn’t bring the right people in, but he set the path for further change in Russia,”
Many though were scathing of Medvedev’s time in office and his often stated liberal credentials.
“Under Medvedev there has been a huge gap between rhetoric on democracy and reality,” said analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow-based Carnegie Center. “Medvedev inflicted a crucial blow on the institution of democracy in Russia and bears massive responsibility for its discreditation.”
She also said what she called the contradiction between Medvedev’s promises and Russia’s continuing political reality was the trigger for the mass protests that rocked Moscow this winter.
“Medvedev is to educated Russians today what [Leonid] Brezhnev was to the Soviets – he inspires the same feeling of nausea,” Shevtsova said.
Within months of his ascension to the presidency, Medvedev was faced with one of the biggest foreign affairs crisis of his entire stay in office when neighboring Georgia launched an overnight assault on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August 2008.
Tiny South Ossetia, along with another republic, Abkhazia, had split from Soviet Georgia after a bloody perestroika-era conflict, and by 2008 most of its population of some 70,000 were in possession of Russian passports.
Although South Ossetia was not part of Russia, a number of the county’s peacekeepers stationed there were killed in the Georgian assault on the republic’s capital of Tskhinvali, and Medvedev ordered the armed forces to hit back hard. But it was also Medvedev who subsequently pulled the military back from deep within Georgia and entered into talks with French President Nikolas Sarkozy to bring an end to the five-day war.
“Aside from the harsh statements during the war, he was also a diplomat enough to halt the war, not to push on to Tbilisi and also agree in negotiations with the West, to stabilize the situation,” said Berlin-based analyst Rahr.
Medvedev’s tenure also saw the much-vaunted “reset” in bilateral ties with the United States, and the signing of a crucial nuclear arms control treaty with the White House. Deep disagreements remained, however, over the U.S.-led plan for a missile shield system in Europe.
“He will be remembered as someone who signed the Start 3 Treaty with the United States and took a step forward to escape the last legacy of the Cold War,” Rahr said. “This was not easy – a lot of influential politicians in the West wanted to see a policy of containment and not engagement with Moscow.”
And although Medvedev took the credit for what he said were the “best ever U.S-Russia ties” as his presidency came to its end, few were under any illusions as to who exactly had been pulling the strings.
“Medvedev will be remembered as a softer face of Russian foreign policy,” said Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank.
“[But] Washington has always assumed that Putin as prime minister was closely involved in major foreign policy decisions,” he went on. “There would have been no reset, no New START Treaty, no Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo on Iran had he opposed them.”
Medvedev’s rule also coincided with a dramatic increase in Internet penetration in Russia, which now boasts over 50 million users – the most in Europe – according to a September 2011 survey by the Internet marketing research company ComScore.
Unlike reported technophobe Putin, Medvedev embraced new technologies, launching a Twitter account (mercilessly mocked) and personally wishing Russians happy birthdays via social network sites. Internet users nicknamed him Russia’s “chief blogger” midway through his Kremlin stint – a nod as much to his perceived political impotence as his passion for all things online.
“It’s clear that Medvedev will be seen as, historically at least, responsible for a certain growth in Internet activism – like the appearance of [well-known anti-corruption blogger] Alexei Navalny, for example. He could have clamped down on all this, but he didn’t,” said Alexander MorOzov, one of Russia’s top bloggers and head of the Center for Media Studies, a Moscow think tank.
“But not everything was positive,” he added. “There was some persecution of the radical elements of the Internet community during Medvedev’s term of office, and he did nothing to stop it.”
Navalny, who sought to expose corruption among bureaucrats and other officials, was the most high-profile of a new generation of online activists catering to an audience hungry for news and comment independent of state-controlled national media. Russia’s online community was also instrumental in the organization and promotion of the mass anti-Putin protests that briefly threatened to change forever Russia’s political landscape.
On a lighter side, Medvedev also demonstrated a willingness to poke fun at himself online, bringing a levity to the Kremlin that would have been unimaginable under the austere and terse Putin. When a clip of him dancing to Soviet pop hit “American Boy” was posted on YouTube in 2011, Medvedev responded to an online comment that “he dances like my dad,” with a jokey Twitter post: “That’s about right, probably, age-wise.”
Medvedev’s spokesperson also later said he had “failed to understand” the decision to cut a parody of his dance from a prime time television show. “The president is pretty calm about parodies,” said spokesperson Natalya Timakova. “He’s even posted some of the best on his Twitter account.”
A Brighter Future?
Speaking in a live, televised interview just over a week before the end of his presidency, Medvedev confessed that “four years is not that long” and that he had simply not had time to push through all the reforms he had sought.
But he denied in what was effectively his farewell interview as president that he had felt a sense of frustration during his term of office.
‘Sure, I’ve been in bad moods,” he said in an interview aired live on state-run television in late April. “Very bad moods. But there has been no desperation.”
And with Medvedev set to become prime minister, there are those who suggested a more effective period could lie ahead.
“His legacy may become more visible if he continues to conduct his liberalization policies in the government,” said analyst Rahr. “Then he will be seen as someone who turned Russia back from the path of authoritarianism.”