It’s easy to be dismissive, even derisory, about poor Dmitry Medvedev, the little engine that ultimately couldn’t. Installed as chair-warmer-in-chief by Vladimir Putin, to occupy the president’s office in the Kremlin until bis patron was ready to reclaim it. For a while, in 2010-11, I wondered if the experience of being behind the big desk had changed him, whether he was nerving himself up to challenge Putin. I suspect he was contemplating it, not least given that he started tentatively to occupy spaces which had largely been Putin’s turf, such as talking tough on the Kurils. We know that people like Surkov wanted him to serve another term, although as part of a deal with Putin rather than through a contested election. But it didn’t happen; Dima blinked and Vova came back. And Dima had to tell everyone how much better Vova was then him. Poor guy. And, to be honest, the rising volume of chatter in Russia about a possible dismissal from his consolation-prize prime ministerial position is probably also well-founded. When he was appointed I thought he had six months before he’d be moved out, and that comes up in November. We’ll see.
However, one of the reasons why I love taking part in the indispensable Russian politics wonkfest that is the Power Vertical podcast is that it helps me marshal my thoughts, and through yesterday’s conversation with Brian Whitmore I came to realize that when the histories of this turbulent era come to be written, it may well prove to be Medvedev who is credited for being the agent of Putin’s downfall: not Navalny, not Udaltsov, not even that wicked Mike McFaul and his coffers of State Department silver. Why? Because the challenges facing and ultimately possibly beating Putin today and to a large extent the products of policies and processes initiated under Medvedev. If the protesters of today are Putin’s children, they are also Medvedev’s foster-kids.
In the podcast, we discussed both the importance of Medvedev’s rhetorical and — more unusually — genuine commitment to a rule-of-law state as well as the economic and social developments which took place on his watch. There’s more, though. In no particular order or depth, I’d add:
- Medvedev’s move to force government officials to step down from boards of state corporations; this may not really have stuck (or done much to rein in Sechin) but it was a significant statement of the need to disentangle politics and business.
- Medvedev was far more overtly positive on the need to address environmental issues, allowing the further rise of movements which acquired an increasingly political dimension. (Let’s see what happens in the Khimki mayoral elections where Evgenia Chirikova is standing.)
- It was Medvedev who sacked Moscow mayor Luzhkov in 2010, a particular example of how individuals can challenge the state but not necessarily be on the side of the angels. As a symbol that no one is untouchable, that mattered — and it is hard to overstate the importance of Moscow and its governance in modern Russia. Besides which, Luzhkov’s successor, Sergei Sobyanin, might prove an interesting future power-broker or even successor to Putin, a technocratic insider who could offer ‘Putinism without Putin’…
- The 2008 Georgian War asserted Russia’s coercive power within Eurasia but also created a legacy of mistrust that Putin is ill-equipped to address. It might have been Dima’s war (kinda), but it is still Vova’s problem.
- Medvedev’s 2009 modernization program, Again, easy to deride, and a lot is just overheated “white heat of technology” rhetoric that would have done Harold Wilson proud, but a serious drive towards modernization is inevitably problematic for a regime built on rent-seeking exploitation of primary exports and a controlled society. Russia’s modernization will depend on and empower the new metropolitan middle class — the very people most opposed to Putin.
- Meaningful reform of higher education, including the creation of the National Research Universities and, especially, opening up the system to greater exchange of students, faculty and ideas with the West. This will inevitably also create new constituencies critical of the status quo.
There is no doubt more, but for a range of reasons (and certainly not with any Grand Plan), I do think that we can credit Medvedev with playing a key role in the rise of the forces now so troubling Putin and his chums.