Russian President Dmitry Medvedev begins his third year in office today still seeking to tame a bureaucracy that has resisted his initiatives and shake an image of powerlessness.
Medvedev, 44, began his presidency pledging to eliminate the sources of terrorism, fight corruption and kick the economy’s oil addiction. Success in achieving that agenda has eluded him as he wrestles with a bureaucracy that he now criticizes for ignoring his orders.
He has also failed to convince many Russians that he is something other than a figurehead keeping the presidential seat warm for his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Two-thirds of Russians believe Medvedev is under the control of “Putin and his circle,” and 39 percent expect Putin to return to the presidency after the next election, according to a poll of 1,600 people published last month by the Moscow-based Levada Center.
“Everybody is waiting for something to happen but nobody is rushing to support Medvedev,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin’s United Russia party and a Moscow sociologist who studies the country’s elites. “The best option would be for Putin and Medvedev to run against each other.”
Medvedev, a lawyer by training, worked as a legal adviser to Putin when he was in charge of attracting foreign investment to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. When Putin was elected president in 2000, Medvedev and other colleagues from St. Petersburg were appointed to key posts. Putin backed Medvedev as his successor in 2008 because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive presidential terms.
Putin, 57, defended his partnership with Medvedev on a visit to Milan last week, where he met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
“Our actions are guided exclusively in the interests of our country and the Russian people,” he said at a news conference. “We divide up our competencies in accordance with the constitution and Russian legislation.”
In September, Medvedev published a manifesto exhorting people to join him in modernizing Russia by uprooting corruption, fighting alcoholism and reducing the country’s dependence on natural resources.
Six months later, he called ministers to a meeting to complain that lower level officials often ignored his orders while stuffing reports with meaningless data.
During a televised meeting with Russia’s top police officials on Feb. 18, Medvedev said he was taking personal control of the overhaul of law enforcement amid outrage over abuse and corruption. Two-thirds of Russians don’t trust law-enforcement agencies, and 77 percent feel defenseless from police abuse, according to a separate Levada Center poll.
Medvedev called for a crackdown on “terrorist scum” last June after attacks in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus region. On March 29, suicide bombers attacked two Moscow subway stations in the deadliest terrorist assault in the capital in six years.
Some analysts say Medvedev’s domestic agenda, much of which he inherited from Putin, was doomed to fail.
“Medvedev had two goals when he took power: preserve the stability of the political system and help legitimize the elite in the West,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Institute for National Strategy, a policy research center in Moscow. “There aren’t any plans for democratization or modernization, only PR campaigns.”
President Barack Obama found an eager partner in Medvedev when the U.S. sought to “reset” relations with Russia that had deteriorated during the almost parallel administrations of Putin and George W. Bush. Medvedev, who has traveled from Norway to Namibia as the face of Russia, signed a nuclear arms control accord with Obama last month in Prague.
Russian Silicon Valley
In the past two weeks, Putin welcomed Austria into the South Stream pipeline project being built by OAO Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly, and hammered out a deal to give gas subsidies to Ukraine in return for allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain based in the country until 2042.
“In his foreign contacts, Medvedev isn’t independent. He’s more like an ambassador who gets instructions,” said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Russian arm of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “With the commission, he can do what he likes.”
The value of South Stream and the gas agreement are in the neighborhood of $80 billion, while Medvedev’s innovation budget is no more than $4 billion, said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Russian arm of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Medvedev’s commission on modernization, which plans to create a Russian “Silicon Valley,” should be viewed the same way as the toy armies young czars were given to practice for real warfare, Petrov said.
Modernization Not Possible
Medvedev’s innovations, including mandatory income declarations by high-ranking officials, are insufficient to fight corruption because they hide “latent income” such as luxury flats, cars and other perks, Kryshtanovskaya said.
“No modernization is possible as long as our society remains authoritarian,” she said.