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Analysis & Opinion
27.05.11 Has Medvedev Become A Lame Duck?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Elena Miskova, Alexander Rahr, Vlad Sobell

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has been savaged by the Russian and Western media for breaking little new ground and failing to announce his presidential bid during a lackluster press-conference last week. It is true that the event was overhyped by the Kremlin’s press service which sought, strangely enough, to fuel all sorts of wild expectations for the conference, from a presidential bid announcement to the possible firing of Vladimir Putin. Are such harsh assessments justified? Was Medvedev’s performance really that pathetic? Did he really turn into a lame duck by not challenging Putin directly and by failing to appeal to the nation to back him for president?

Here is how The Economist described it: “In keeping with his modernizing image, Medvedev held his event at Moscow's Skolkovo School of Management, in an area decreed by the Kremlin to be Russia's Palo Alto. To highlight his openness to the media he picked questions without the aid of his press secretary. The atmosphere was relaxed and lighthearted. The menacing jokes Putin used to make during his press conferences as president were absent. But so was anything of substance. After two hours, the theme of the event remained as elusive as it had been when the president started.”

Most of the criticism has focused on Medvedev’s failure to lay out his vision for the nation’s future or to announce his decision to run for a second term. He has essentially dodged the issue by saying that the decision should be taken at the right time to maximize its electoral effect. He announced no new policy initiatives that would extend beyond his first term in office, other than his groundbreaking plan for overhauling Russia’s car inspection system.

Western media and Russian liberal commentators lambasted Medvedev for his failure to distance himself from Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Medvedev even underscored the similarity of his and Putin’s positions on major issues. Medvedev said it was too early to bring back the popular elections of regional governors or to change the existent system of appointments to the Federation Council. He even reversed his position on Libya, basically saying that he was duped by the United States into not vetoing the UN resolution and that he would not make the same mistake in the case of Syria.

This prompted some observers to claim that the point of the whole exercise was to make nice with Putin and to appeal to the only voter who matters in Russia in presidential nomination decisions. As The Economist put it “…the press conference again showed Medvedev to be not an independent politician, but a ‘minder’ selected by Putin for his reliability. The failure of the event to generate news was news in itself. Medvedev showed his willingness to continue to perform this role should Putin choose to leave him in the Kremlin.”

Forbes Russia described Medvedev as an “empty-seater,” a political non-entity (“pustoye mesto”), while Time magazine observed that Medvedev had turned into a “lame duck” even before he finished his press conference.

Are such harsh assessments justified? Was Medvedev’s performance really that pathetic? Why did everyone expect that he would break with Putin and announce his candidacy for president? Did he really turn into a lame duck by not challenging Putin directly and by failing to appeal to the nation to back him for president? Why did Medvedev seek to underscore the similarity of his positions with Putin’s, including on Libya and missile defense cooperation with NATO? Is it because only 13 percent of Russians support Medvedev’s stance on Libya, while an overwhelming 53 percent endorse Putin’s anti-Western position, according to a recent poll by the Levada Center? Was his overall performance at the press-conference that lackluster?

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Slow and steady wins the race.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not only appreciates the importance of having a state based on the rule of law where officials are seemingly accountable for their actions, but he also appears to understand the wisdom of many long-standing Russian sayings. Hence, it is too early to label Dmitry Medvedev a "lame duck," just as it was too early to say with a high degree of confidence that Barack Obama would be a one-term president.

Medvedev is in an awkward position. That situation contributed to his unimpressive performance at his recent press conference. He does not wish to do anything to alienate his mentor prime minister Putin, and he recognizes that political stability is important to both the Russian elites and the masses. He knows the danger of being a "tall poppy."

Anyone who has studied statistics for a semester will tell you that averages are misleading when interpreting data. Far more important is to analyze the medians – the point where half a given population is higher and half is lower. This is why reports about the Russian economy and its level of political risk are often misleading. Medians in Russia in most key areas are quite low by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, even though Russia is the world's 11th largest economy.

The quality of life for a majority of the country's citizenry is not getting noticeably better. Focusing on the country's GDP (or GDP per capita) is misleading in a country of great unequal wealth distribution with no real safety net.

As the Carnegie Endowment's Nikolai Petrov noted six months ago, do not underestimate the “Navalny effect.” Alexey Navalny, the founder of Rospil.ru, is potentially just the tip of the iceberg. One can create political blogs from anywhere in the world. Blog posts can be distributed to both Russian citizens and foreign journalists. Evgeny Morozov may be brilliant, as shown in his work The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom – but did he predict the events in Egypt or Tunisia? Granted, Russia does not resemble either country, yet Russia is not immune from political upheaval.

It would be a mistake to be obsessed with the formal structure of the Russian political system and the stability of United Russia. Too much time has been spent speculating about the future composition of the Russian Federal Assembly. The forthcoming State Duma elections will merely provide some addition data, the meaning of which is open to debate. Kremlinology might have made sense in Soviet times, since the subject for study was an autarchy and where the ruling authorities had a monopoly over the media (and how many people had the courage to predict the Soviet Union’s demise in writing?). This is not the case today.

In any events, coups and revolutions do not require a mandate from "the majority." Russian kleptocrats (and government officials) keep their assets largely abroad for a good reason: in the event of political change, they will be the first targets for the state's new leaders. They may not fully understand many countries’ rules concerning anti-money laundering (including "know your customer” for banks). They may not fully understand the limitations many countries impose on foreign ownership of their natural resources. Many Russian kleptocrats may discover their "holdings" are smaller than they thought since they were implemented in a fraudulent manner.

One of the key rules of politics is "make no major mistakes." Medvedev is frequently reminding the Russian people and foreign political and business leaders that Putin's past policies have failed. However, but for high energy and natural resource prices, the country's economy would even more closely resemble the Brezhnevian "era of stagnation." Only today, the elite take vacations abroad (where they have their children educated and they acquire property), while the brain drain continues apace.

Few dare call it a civil war, but the Russian national security community has yet to find a successful policy for the Caucasus. The situations in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq are a cause of apprehension for a country where the Muslim population is growing.

Perhaps, it is not a great analogy to look at a polity with a genuine electoral system that produces political leaders, but the American media in 1980 spent a lot of time discussing then President Gerald Ford's remark that "Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union" (although a foolish comment at the time, he was shown to have been merely 30 years early).

In Russia, public opinion is far less important than avoiding crises. Without significant policy changes, Russia is heading down a path toward an existential crisis. Why would Putin want to deal with this headache so long as Medvedev does not threaten him directly?

If Putin regains the presidency, I am not convinced his international legitimacy would appear to be much greater than Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's, unless he were to adopt the policies that Medvedev has called for. It would seem, however, that Putin and his inner circle are too set in their ways to change.

Vlad Sobell, Independent Analyst, UK:

Instead of asking whether the harsh treatment meted out to president Medvedev by Western commentators and the press is justified, we should ask why prestigious Western newspapers apparently feel the need to constantly pooh-pooh Russia’s indisputably popular and successful leaders. Regardless of what Medvedev does or does not do, he will always be ridiculed as Putin’s sidekick. And no matter what he says or does, the former KGB agent Putin will be portrayed as the Darth Vader.

At the risk of simplifying a complex situation, I suspect that this patronizing sentiment ultimately stems from the realization that the “autocratic” powers of Russia and China (as well as the other BRICs) are on the ascendancy and that the West has been moving in the opposite direction of relative secular decline.

While Russia has engineered a sweeping transformation, with its people enjoying more and more freedom and prosperity as well as hugely beneficial political stability under Putin’s “controlled democracy,” the Western democracies have incubated the most vicious economic virus in modern history. Having just undergone an unprecedented (in peacetime) collapse of output, many Western economies are burdened by unsustainable debt. The euro zone is witnessing a slow-motion disintegration with dire consequences for the future of the European Union itself.

On the other hand, it is “autocratic” China, with its huge reserves and solid fiscal position, that has saved the global economy from an even bigger disaster and it is “structurally flawed” Russia that has staged an early recovery following the deep recession inflicted on it by the collapse of commodity prices.

Were the prestigious Western pundits Vladimir Frolov mentions really worthy of our attention, they would have refrained from sterile Kremlinology and cheap treatment of Russia’s leaders. Instead, they would be asking why is it that the West is in such a mess and try to give their readers intellectually honest answers. The reasons why The Economist & Co are loath to adopt such a responsible stance are not dissimilar to those why the Soviet-era Pravda could not possibly be expected to provide an honest exposition of the systemic flaws of communism.

Let us make no mistake. What we are witnessing is not a mere economic crisis, nor a standard downward cycle. It is no less than an existential and systemic crisis of post-war Western democracy, of a system that was supposed to have been sufficiently rational, just, transparent and morally robust to preclude such economic disasters. Clearly, the theory of “advanced Western democracy” has nose-dived in a fashion reminiscent of the collapse of Brezhnev’s “advanced socialist society.”

Could it be, therefore, that not only has Western democracy been thoroughly abused and corrupted, but, more worryingly, its degradation is just as inevitable as the corruption of the theoretically perfect communist system? The reason why The Economist & Co will not ask such questions and why they will, instead, continue to divert their readers’ attention to the “laughable autocrats” should be sought in the fact that they themselves are part of the wholly discredited Western establishment that has caused the global crisis.

Honest analysts can no longer subscribe to Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” But that has, in fact, been the case for sometime now. Reminded of Churchill’s words, the impeccable democrat, British historian Hugh Seton-Watson commented back in 1979: “I am not so sure that [Churchill’s conclusion] is always true. I am not convinced that no type of autocracy or oligarchy could ever be better than mass democracy. At least autocrats and oligarchs are able to take their decisions and stick to them. Anybody aspiring to a career in a mass democracy, on the other hand, has to do what is immediately acceptable to the vote-givers – what is interesting, or pleasurable, or has novelty – but that is certainly not prescription for statesmanship.”

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA:

It is exceptionally remarkable how vicious the assessments have become literally overnight from those same voices which had lionized Medvedev a fortnight before. This unprincipled turn-about does not reflect well on the current promoters of “liberal” values for Russia, and is a warning to any potential allies these promoters may want to enlist in their camp in the future.

The vocabulary now used in the direction of Medvedev reminds one of the vitriol emitted by Lenin in his diatribes against those who did not meet his political expectations.

As I repeatedly noted, the notion that Medvedev was an ideological opponent and possible alternative to the so much hated Putin was an invention of the “liberal” enemies of the present government of Russia. In an act of apparent desperation, they invented an “alternative Medvedev” and are now expressing shrill disgust because the real article does not match their imaginary one.

Medvedev is not a lame duck, nor is he an “empty space.” He just demonstrated that his vision for Russia does not match the ideological agenda of his sudden critics.

In fact, with his track record (Skolkovo, the building of a modern Russian police force, the victory against Saakashvili’s military adventure), Medvedev may be able to appeal to large segments of Russia’s electorate for decades. Regardless of the outcome of the 2012 elections, Medvedev can write his own political ticket in Russia, should he chose a political career. Or he may revert back to teaching, a choice he has mentioned, and something other statesmen in other places and times have exercised.

There continues to be a profound disconnect between the adepts of what is erroneously called “liberal ideology” in Russia and the electorate of that country. Certain (but definitely not all) political actors in the West are also committing a major error by supporting this failed political tendency: the West’s image in Russia is generally tarnished, and bridge building, rather than partisanship, should be the order of the day.

One uses quotation marks around the word “liberal” because the ideology in question does not fit the classic definition of liberalism, just like Bolshevism was not really a social-democratic ideology.

The “liberal” ideology in Russia appears related to the teachings of a certain Ayn Rand, who influenced many of the theoreticians who produced the current economic crisis. Rand was at one time a Soviet citizen and later in America she promoted views of amoral social Darwinism which are remarkably germane to those ideological hotbeds where Nazism eventually flourished. Such “liberalism” perforce must be referenced in quotation marks. No doubt most if not all modern Russian liberals would be appalled to some degree to learn the roots of their acquired world-view, which is not so popular outside of Russia either.

Medvedev is not a lame duck, nor a “minder,” nor an “empty space.” He simply has disappointed a group of fanatics by not being what they imagined him to be. These fanatics turn out to be a rather vicious lot, it is now clear. Their unmasking is not unexpected, and certainly not to their advantage. But as it is said: “quod dius vult perdere, dementat” (whom the gods destroy, they first make insane).

Before the presidential elections of 2012, there is a very important election in December 2011 for deputies to the Russian State Duma. One can safely assume that the current focus of Russia’s real politicians is more centred on this important event.

Elena Miskova, Managing Partner, LEFF GROUP Government and Public Relations, Moscow:

Medvedev’s reportedly “disappointing” press-conference has revealed the exuberant expectations the Russian intellectual class has for Medvedev’s presidency, his reformist agenda and the prospects for his second term in office.

So what exactly was so disappointing in president Medvedev’s performance that day? Is it that he failed to declare his candidacy for his second term? Is it that he paid a few compliments to his mentor and fellow tandem partner Vladimir Putin? Or is it that he failed to deliver a crushing blow to Putin as an epitome of all evil and inhumane?

If that is the case, then these expectations are no better than the nihilism of the liberal opposition in the 1990s. Medvedev refused to follow in the footsteps of liberal oppositionists. He chose the line of succession and continuation of personalities and programs.

It is telling that the Russian intellectual class has tied its hopes to the acting president – the ultimate power-that-be, which runs counter to the Russian historical tradition. The reason for this is quite simple – for their own convenience they have chosen to cast Medvedev as an opponent of Putin, as a fighter against Putin’s system. This is something Medvedev has never promised to be.

Putin, on the other hand, having launched his campaign to convince the public and the elites of the total inevitability of his return to the presidency, has managed to deny himself his most important political and electoral trump-card – his unpredictability. This is another unique situation – Putin losing his nerve and his unprecedented ability to keep the intrigue and the suspense to the very end.

What I do not understand is why, in this situation of mounting political competition and even rivalry, the intellectual class has rushed to deny their trust in and support of president Medvedev and his agenda? Why are they all giving up on him?

Alexander Rahr, Director,Berthold-Beitz Center For Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia Studies, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin:

Dmitry Medvedev seems to believe that he will continue to rule Russia until 2018. He is convinced that he did a good job as head of state. In his press conference he promised to speed up reform and make Russia more democratic, but Medvedev's biggest task is now to convince Vladimir Putin not to run for the presidency.

Medvedev may use the argument that he has established the appropriate good ties with the West and Western investors, which Russia needs. They see him, and not Putin, as the guarantor for success and stability in Russia, which means so far so good.

But how can Medvedev convince Putin to leave the political stage? It is clear that Medvedev will not tolerate a strong prime minister next to him as president for another six years. And as for Putin, it seems that he cannot return to the Kremlin without a fierce fight. However, a power struggle between Putin and Medvedev may destabilize the country, as the majority of the elite in Russia favors Putin over Medvedev.

It seems very unlikely that Putin will depart from politics. He is building his People’s Front with the goal to continue to govern Russia. He has to win parliamentary elections with a huge margin, only then can he explain to the voters why he needs to come back again and why Medvedev should go.
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