As Dmitry Medvedev prepares to take over as President of Russia, analysts dismiss his forthcoming tenure as “an extension of Vladimir Putin’s reign.”
At first glance, it looks as if the analysts might be right. After all, Medvedev would not have been where he is today had he not been groomed for succession under Putin’s patronage.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the Medvedev presidency would be nothing but Putin-bis with a smile.
To start with, Medvedev is not Putin.
Putin was a typical product of the Soviet system while Medvedev’s formative years coincided with the post-Soviet era.
Putin was nurtured by a culture that emphasized party secrecy, authoritarianism, xenophobia and suspicion of individual initiative. Medvedev, on the other hand, grew up in a society that alternated between exaggerated hopes and excessive self-doubt, a society that celebrated individual initiative and adulated the outside world, especially the West.
Putin and Medvedev are also divided by personal trajectories.
The former rose to power through back channels, so to speak.
As a young recruit in the Soviet secret service, the KGB, Putin witnessed the decline and fall of the empire he had sworn to protect.
Medvedev, on the other hand, found his way up the ladder in the market place, by learning to make money rather than collecting medals.
In Putin’s world vision, the state machine sets the tune.
For Medvedev the economist, however, the market is at least as important as the state in fixing the national agenda.
It is of course, possible that Putin and Medvedev have a secret agreement under which the latter will resign as president in six months’ time, allowing the former to return to the Kremlin for a third term. It is also possible that Putin, almost certain to be named prime minister, would continue to wield real power while Medvedev cuts ribbons and kisses babies.
A closer look at the Russian scene, however, would show that such deals, even if they existed, could not be pulled off with the ease implied in their conception.
The presidential election campaign, though carefully orchestrated, revealed a Medvedev that enjoyed the limelight and longed for the power he hoped to acquire.
There is one more reason why a Medvedev presidency is unlikely to become a copy of Putin’s: Putin has succeeded in what he had to do, that is to say restore discipline, rebuild the bureaucracy, rein in the oligarchs, and clip the wings of “jungle capitalists.”
In other words, Medvedev does not need to do what Putin has already done. Instead, he would have to address Russia’s new needs- needs that have come to the fore precisely because Putin has successfully dealt with other pressing problems.
Top of the list is the democratic deficit that Russia has suffered from since Boris Yeltsin left the stage in a cloud of corruption, alcohol and scandal.
History is full of examples of societies that have built disciplined states and even achieved a measure of industrialization thanks to a period of authoritarian rule.
Bismarck’s “iron chancellorship” created the united Germany in the 1860s and 70s and even offered the first welfare state. The shoguns presided over Japan’s industrialization in the 19th and early 20th century. Mussolini tried to draw legitimacy for his Fascist regime with the claim that he had made Italian trains run on time. The USSR under Stalin achieved a major leap towards industrialization and, later, even sent the first man into space. Hitler sought legitimacy by building motorways on which his shock troops could goose-step in parades.
More recently, we have seen authoritarian regimes transforming such countries as South Korea and Taiwan from peasant societies into modern industrial ones.
In most cases, however, the achievements of the authoritarian state proved unsustainable. Sustained development was possible only when the authoritarian state managed to correct its democratic deficit. (South Korea and Taiwan are the most recent examples while the jury is out on both Russia and China.)
Judging by his pronouncements, Medvedev understand one important truth that Putin was culturally unable to appreciate, that it is not possible to build a modern capitalist economy without a corresponding democratic political framework.
Russia’s economic achievements under Putin are more fragile than authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan a generation ago.
Today, Russia owes almost all of its new prosperity to energy exports. Total Russian industrial output accounts for less than 15 per cent of Holland’s. The situation is even worse in the services industries, the real engines of the modern post-industrial economies. Russia has not yet succeeded in creating a credible bank, let alone a financial industry.
It is a safe bet that Medvedev knows all this and will try to create the conditions needed for sustained economic development and industrial diversification. In doing so, he is sure to find out that Russia needs to transform itself into an open society based on the rule of law within a representative system of government.
Medvedev would have to distance himself from some of Putin’s favorite power games, such as trying to de-stabilize Georgia, the Ukraine, the Baltic republics and Byelorussia in the hope of projecting greater Russian power. He should also take into account the fact that picking a quarrel with the European Union over Kosovo and with the United States over anti-missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic, does not constitute a credible foreign policy.
Medvedev may gradually abandon some of the Cold War tactics that Putin has used, perhaps had to use, to assert Russia’s demand to be taken seriously.
Putin’s decision last year to suspend compliance with the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe has produced nothing but suspicion of Russia throughout the European Union. No one believes that Russia intends to mass its tanks and missiles for an imminent attack on the EU. However, the move showed that Putin was playing an old game that almost everyone believed was no longer relevant to modern European realities.
Medvedev would also do well to forget Putin’s threat of refusing to renew the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) that expires next year. The death of START could provoke a wave of panic in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and trigger a new arms race that Russia cannot win.
President Medvedev must prove that he is his own man. If he does, Russia could consolidate the successes that Putin made possible. And that would be good news for everyone.