This week President Dmitry Medvedev makes his first official state visit to the United States. Despite some missteps, such as the unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Georgia war, Medvedev has been a successful and effective diplomatic presence, a new face for Russia.
Even in the area of foreign policy, however, there is still some ambiguity over who is calling the shots – Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Last week saw Putin in Paris, discussing energy projects and arms sales with the French business community. Earlier this month he made headlines at the Istanbul summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. Putin called for an international investigation of the Gaza flotilla incident and expressed support for Iran's nuclear power program. This was just one day before the UN Security Council voted to tighten sanctions on Iran.
Those trips were not unusual. As prime minister, Putin has maintained an active program of foreign visits, whose number has increased over time – four in 2008, 11 in 2009, and nine so far this year. Medvedev of course is the main standard bearer for Russia at international conferences. For example, before traveling to the U.S. this month he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and took part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent. Medvedev logged 21 foreign trips in 2008, 23 in 2009, and 12 in the first half of 2010.
From the outset of the Medvedev presidency, there were some doubts about who was calling the shots in foreign policy. On his first outing as president, attending the G8 summit in Japan in July 2008, Medvedev signed a declaration on sanctions against Zimbabwe. But several days later Russia vetoed the corresponding resolution in the UN Security Council. Putin has systematically played a leading role in several foreign policy areas, particularly those involving economics. During the January 2009 gas dispute with Ukraine, it was Putin who was shown on TV facing down the Ukrainian negotiators. The Russian Constitution assigns to the president the duties of representing the country abroad, conducting negotiations with foreign states, and signing international treaties. Yet Putin explicitly stated during a visit to Tokyo in May 2009 that international economic issues lie within his sphere of competence. Shortly thereafter he stunned international observers by announcing that Russia was withdrawing its individual bid to join the World Trade Organization and would instead be pursuing a joint bid as part of a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Medvedev has made a number of key speeches in which he tried to chart a new course in Russian foreign policy – such as the June 2008 Berlin speech calling for a new European security architecture, or the Sochi speech of August 2008 where he spelled out five principles of Russian foreign policy. But these addresses seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
There is also a substantial difference in style between the two men: it is hard for Medvedev to compete with Putin's tough guy image and pithy one-liners. Recall that in August 2008 Putin casually mentioned to French President Nicholas Sarkozy that "I want to hang Saakashvili by the balls." Medvedev was silent in the face of criticism of Russia's human rights record at the Russia-EU summit in May. In contrast, just two days before, Putin vigorously defended the state's right to ban opposition marches in his unscripted but widely broadcast debate with rock star Yury Shevchuk.
Defenders of tandemocracy argue that there is no cause for concern. There is a normal division of labor between the two men, who are on the same page politically. However, the dual role can wrong-foot Russia's diplomatic interlocutors. On the eve of his first visit to Moscow in July 2009, President Barack Obama told reporters that Putin had "one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new," while praising Medvedev as a forward-looking leader. This brought an unnecessary element of tension to what was supposed to be a "reset" of the relationship.
There's one way to settle the question, once and for all. Someone should ask Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: just whom exactly is he working for?