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Analysis & Opinion
26.04.12 The Home Stretch
By Dan Peleschuk

Outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has just days left in his presidency. Ahead of the long May holidays and President-elect Vladimir Putin??™s inauguration on May 7, it seems the lame-duck president is still firing parting shots in an attempt to shape his legacy. Though he has offered a number of symbolic gestures ??“ pardoning a wrongly-imprisoned man and taking part in a tough question-and-answer broadcast, among others ??“ experts say there??™s little that can save Medvedev from an inevitable reputation that will follow him out of the Kremlin.

Since Putin??™s reelection early last month, it seems that Medvedev has stepped up his efforts at making the most of what??™s left of his presidency. Indeed, the wintertime mass protests that forced the Kremlin into a corner had produced some measured results, all of which were championed by Medvedev himself: the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections, the loosening of the political party registration process, and the creation of a nationwide public television channel free of government interference.

Yet each of these ostensible Kremlin concessions has garnered scorn from one corner or another of the nascent anti-government movement. Critics have slammed the return of gubernatorial elections because of the ???presidential filter??? they incorporate, foreshadowing the continuing meddling of the executive in regional affairs. Many of the most visible non-systemic opposition figures, meanwhile, also seem turned off by the prospect of political competition in what they say is a new party registration system rigged to splinter the anti-Kremlin movement. Lastly, few seem to believe that public access television is realistic in a country where virtually every editorial line is dictated by private interests.

Still, however, this hasn??™t prevented the famously lame-duck president from attempting to shape the legacy of his quickly dissipating presidency. Much of his exit so far seems built on displays of good faith, such as the pardoning of 58-year-old Sergei Mokhnatkin, who had been wrongly jailed since December 2009 for allegedly attacking a police officer during an opposition rally. But little has been done about the more pressing cases for which opposition leaders have pushed, such as the release of ex-tycoons and political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovksy and Platon Lebedev.

Medvedev addressed this point and much more during his final televised interview on Thursday, which was widely perceived as one last attempt to, at the very least, set the rhetoric straight around his presidency. In a two-hour question-and-answer session, he fielded unusually tough questions from several network television journalists, spanning the gamut from anti-corruption and military reform to the fate of the ruling United Russia Party. As predicted, he spent much of the session defending himself, often claiming his four years as president simply weren??™t enough to reverse rampant official corruption or crooked courts.

At times, he appeared to talk tough and to display some semblance of authority, especially when he revealed that out of the 50 percent of regional governors that had changed office during his term, most had been fired by him rather than having voluntarily resigned. At other moments, he cast himself as the staunch party man ready to take the reins of a very troubled and deeply unpopular United Russia, if asked by Putin. And then, once again, was his somewhat characteristic appeal to the more liberal-minded Russians: stating that Russia is now freer than when he first took office in 2008, and hinting that some court punishments are too harsh, even suggesting that Mikhail Khodorkovsky might be freed if he asked for a pardon.

Experts, however, say such last ditch efforts are unlikely as ever to turn the tide back in favor of a man nicknamed ???pathetic??? by Twitter users across Russia. And while Medvedev still faces a chance of accomplishing something as prime minister, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said he faces such tough work ahead that popularity is the last thing he??™ll gain. ???What else can he do to make people like him again? On the contrary, he has only unpopular and unpleasant decisions to make: he??™ll need to increase tariffs for gas, water and electricity, and improve general living standards by raising the costs of utilities, among other things,??? he said. ???Putin ate all the cookies and left him with the dirty dishes.???

But maybe there??™s an upshot to Medvedev??™s less than thrilling run at the Russian presidency. Countless observers have pointed to the now-historic moment last September, when Medvedev announced he would step aside for Putin to run for the presidency, as the primary catalyst for the wave of political and social unrest that followed in the months after. According to Stanislav Belkovksy, a former Kremlin political technologist, the Medvedev experience has actually played a positive role in post-Soviet Russia by exposing the current system??™s undemocratic tendencies and opening the debate over executive power in society. ???He has discredited the presidency as an institution,??? he said. ???In such a sense, Medvedev, objectively and historically, has been quite helpful and useful for Russia.???
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