A Sunday afternoon in autumn pottering around at home. Or perhaps at the dacha. Time to relax, to reflect. What is on Dmitri Medvedev’s mind as he sits and sweats in the banya? Is he smugly chuckling at those stooopid political commentators who have been scrabbling over his every word this month after the publication of the article and a few other provocative hints let slip that he is making a move away from old Putin? Ho ho ho, keep fobbing the liberals off with words and in the meantime I can get away with anything! Or is he making a mental note to change his locks and get a restraining order out on some of his administration staff after making that scathing critique of Putinism and a bold assertion of his own power?
That same old mystery that has got everyone guessing for the past year has popped up again, namely: who’s really in charge in Russia? And now - is there a split between the gruesome twosome?
A popular theory in Russia of the power-sharing arrangement between the two men has been one of a “tandemocracy”, where Putin has consciously taken on the role of “bad cop”, leaving “good cop” Medvedev to show off his shiny liberalism. But what would explain some of Medvedev’s more harsh comments – his complete writing-off of the possibility anywhere in the near future of bringing back elections for regional governors, for example?
Dmitri Kamyshev, writing in Vlast’ magazine, points out that rather than simply a good cop/bad cop scenario, the current set up of power in Russia is in fact almost perfection of the American two-party system that the country has been striving for since the 1990s. Since attempts at raising an acceptable second party up to standard have failed, Russia has settled on replacing the two parties with two lone figures. And so “Party # 1” defends Putinism, whilst “Party # 2” criticises it: between them the tandem has occupied the positions of both ruler and opposition. This neatly keeps any criticism within the two-figure framework and, most importantly, allows them to define the key issues that neither side can criticise.
And these key issues are clearly stated in Medvedev’s “breakthrough” article when he emphasises the need for “cross-party consensus on strategic foreign policy issues, social stability, national security, the foundations of the constitutional order, the protection of the nation's sovereignty, the rights and freedoms of citizens, the protection of property rights, the rejection of extremism, support for civil society, all forms of self-organisation and self-government.” When you put it like that there’s not much left for opponents to get their teeth into.
So what is it that is keeping us Westerners convinced that the doors of democracy in Russia are already ajar, and sooner or later to be thrown wide open? What is it that’s making us imagine the second image of Medvedev in the banya – the one of a man sweating it out to bring about the dawn of democracy?
Yuri Zarakhovich posting on the Jamestown foundation blog called the West’s reaction “liberal wishful thinking”. I think he’s hit the nail on the head. We want him to be the liberal saviour and we can’t get it into our democratic Western heads that there’s an entirely different mindset at play. We can’t quite understand that someone can use the same words – democracy, for example – and have in mind something rather different to what we want them to mean.
In comparison to Putin, Medvedev’s talking the talk and dressing the part. Put it this way: with Putin doing the evil spy eyes and the evil spy face in the background all the time Dima looks a darn sight more like someone you’d want to have drinks with in the hotel bar after a G8 summit. But these outward appearances have combined with our wishful thinking to lead us to get the wrong end of the stick. The Kremlin is probably patting itself on the back for this clever move: it turns out you can have a war with Georgia, chummy up with Iran, sell tanks to Chàvez, cut off gas to Ukraine and Europe, restart military exercises in European airspace and get everyone’s backs up over the Arctic and the Second World War and still get the West thinking your leader’s a closet liberal just by him being short, smiley, dressing smart cas and looking in Putin’s direction when things get a bit iffy.
Maybe I’m a sceptic, but I think if we try to image what is really going on in Medvedev’s mind on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the dacha it might help us snap out of this wishful thinking. He might be modern lawyer in a leather jacket, but he did not get to being President of the Russian Federation on his own. He might differ in style to the others, he might criticise where no-one has criticised before, but at the end of the day he’s a part and product of the same system. “I don’t think he cries himself to sleep at night because he can’t realise his democratic calling,” said one of my equally sceptic Russian friends. There’s an almost comforting thought.