Putin’s Picks

4 minute read
Robert Service

The campaign is over before it began: Dmitry Medvedev will be Russia’s next President. Only two things can stop him. One would be a serious medical emergency. This is unlikely, since the man looks as fit as a flea; it has been centuries since any Kremlin ruler — except for the incumbent, Vladimir Putin — has looked in ruder health. The second snag would be any change of mind by Putin. Medvedev owes his projected elevation to the favor of just one man. Such is Putin’s dominance that Medvedev has immediately begged him to serve as his Prime Minister after the elections in March 2008.

Ostensibly, Putin has made a bold decision. Medvedev is known as an economic liberal. Since being appointed as First Deputy Prime Minister in November 2005, he has held the portfolio of “national programs.” His job was to bring dynamism to the government’s welfare initiatives in housing, pension payments, health care and agriculture. In the 1990s there was a shocking deterioration in the living conditions of most Russians, dragging nearly a third of them below the poverty level. The rise in prices on the world’s petrochemical market gave ministers an opportunity to improve the situation, and Medvedev has impressed people with his performance.

His success was not guaranteed in advance. The Kremlin is a piranha tank of factions. In order to keep the money flowing into social welfare, Medvedev bared his teeth at predators in the security services and the military-industrial lobby — and, against the quoted odds, he survived and flourished.

This toughness is one of the reasons why Putin is anointing him. Another is their mutual trust. Like Putin, the next Russian President comes from St. Petersburg and has a law degree. At 42, he is even younger than Putin. For almost his entire career he has been working, whether directly or not, for Putin, and he ran Putin’s presidential campaign in 2000. He has served, off and on, as the chairman of the board of Russia’s gigantic energy corporation, Gazprom. He has also worked as Chief of Staff in the presidential administration. He has constantly been at the point where politics, administration and economics intersect.

Shadings of difference have come to light between Medvedev and Putin. In 2003, Medvedev was less than gushing in his approval of the arrest of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This was when Putin’s hunting down of the post-communist business “oligarchs” was in full spate. Medvedev has also frequently railed against corruption in Russian public life. He has made a point of saying repeatedly that the country badly needs to protect newly emerging small businesses. His career is apparently devoid of any postings in the Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor to the KGB), whereas several Kremlin leaders, including Putin himself, started their careers in the security agencies. He warmed the hearts of his audience at Davos this year: “We are well aware that there’s one simple reason why no nondemocratic state has ever become prosperous: freedom is better than nonfreedom.”

But Medvedev’s divergences from Putin should not be overstated. Even his distancing himself from the Khodorkovsky affair cannot have been done without consulting Putin. Medvedev is not a politician who will move off the “patriotic” course plotted by his mentor. Putin is a wolf and has always enjoyed looking like one. Medvedev, despite covering himself in lamb’s wool, will probably be just as menacing to the other inhabitants of the wood.

Some are likely to be easy meat. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rushed to endorse his candidacy. When will Germany’s politicians learn that such bursts of enthusiasm fail to win cheaper imports of energy? It was also at Davos that Medvedev stated: “There will no longer be any free gas for anyone.” If and when he becomes Russian President, Medvedev will shake hands warmly with President Bush. It would be ill-advised for Washington, however, to believe Russia’s perceptions of its foreign-policy interests will change regarding Kosovo, Iran or the U.S.-proposed “nuclear shield” installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Even in internal policy there is no serious disagreement between Medvedev and Putin.

This is not to suggest that Putin has any intention of simply fading away: he clearly intends to watch over the doings of his protégé Medvedev. For the moment, there is rightly a sense of relief that Putin has not anointed yet another former member of the FSB to become President. The Russian stock exchange has applauded. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch has pitched in his blessing. Russian newspapers have exulted. Unfortunately, the basic reality of Russia’s politics is likely to remain as unmeltable as Siberian permafrost.

Robert Service is a professor of Russian history at Oxford University

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