A Requiem for Russia's Liberal President: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Not long ago, many in Russia and abroad perceived Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's current president and likely future prime minister, as a liberal counterweight to Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister and likely future president. Lately, the illusion has faded.

Protesting students awaited Medvedev at a recent visit to the journalism department of Moscow State University. According to news service Lenta.ru, they bore placards with messages such as “Don’t You Regret Spending Budgetary Funds On Such ‘Elections,’” “Why Did You Fire [former Finance Minister Alexei] Kudrin" and “Why Are You On Twitter While Khodorkovsky Sits In Prison,” referring to jailed former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The Federal Guard Service quickly rounded them up and took them to a nearby detention center, not quite the response one would expect from a liberal administration.

Medvedev went on to regale journalism students -- who had been selected from a variety of pro-Kremlin groups, including Nashi and Rossmolodyozh, reported Gazeta.ru -- with a surprisingly bellicose promise to knock out [Georgian President] Mikhail Saakashvili’s teeth, and tech-savvy plans to open a Facebook page in addition to his Twitter account.

As Medvedev was leaving, a Gazeta.ru reporter confronted him about the fate of the sequestered students. “Is anyone really being detained?” he responded, and quickly strode past the importunate journalist to a photo-op with students.

In a biting op-ed entitled “Even the Journalism Department Is No Place For Discussion,” Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Nikita Kartsev contrasted Medvedev’s university foray with the 2005 visit of another president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev “came alone, without security guards. The auditorium was packed to the ceiling. His lecture was brief but spirited," he wrote. "We either loved or hated Gorbachev in 2005, but we loved or hated him sincerely. …On Thursday they showed only love for Medvedev, but according to lists of participants drawn up in advance and standing in well controlled lines.”

Medvedev's decline “From Liberal to Lackey” served as the title for a separate op-ed in The Moscow Times, penned by opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov. He recounted how liberals, following Medvedev’s ascension to the presidency in 2008, called for a broad "modernization coalition" to stand behind Medvedev. "A significant portion of the liberal intelligentsia bought into the myth that Medvedev is the new Mikhail Gorbachev and appealed to him to run for a second term. The West, by and large, also put political stock in Medvedev as a liberal. U.S. President Barack Obama led these efforts because he thought that Medvedev would maintain and further develop the 'reset' in U.S.-Russian relations better than the other tandem member, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.”

However, it was not to be. “It became clear that Medvedev was only making a superficial and meaningless call for modernization. He never truly considered reforming the foundation of the corrupt bureaucratic state because reformation would have necessarily entailed at least a partial dismantlement of Putin’s vertical power structure — something that was clearly off the table.”

The sad reality: “Putin was using Medvedev as a placeholder to protect and strengthen his personal hold on power. …It is likely that Putin will now push the country — already lagging so far behind in building a modern economy and institutions — down an increasingly steep slope that could end in total collapse.”

In other news, the Kremlin broke its extended silence over Medvedev's controversial 2010 dismissal of longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. “Luzhkov was fired for poorly managing Moscow and fostering ‘exorbitant corruption’ here,” reported the Moscow Times. Wanted for questioning by Russian authorities in a scandal involving the Bank of Moscow and his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, the former mayor offered his own explanation of his ouster in an interview with Tvrain.ru. Speaking from Austria, Luzhkov blamed unnamed “federal industrial groups” and “a certain political dissatisfaction which the president felt toward the mayor of Moscow." He also accused further anonymous persons of carrying out a “mad siphoning off of city property.”

The ceaseless weaving of political intrigue does little to impede the rising nationalist sentiment on Russia’s streets. Xenophobes have gained the green light from Moscow authorities to hold an event Nov. 4 called the Russian March, which may draw as many as ten thousand participants eager to affirm the superiority of Russians over other peoples, according to Rbc.ru. The authorization comes as a surprise following federal authorities' decision to charge one of the march’s organizers, Dmitri Demushkin, with “incitement of hatred or hostility” and “calling for mass unrest and violence against citizens.” In another article, Rbc.ru provided more detail: “Oppositionist Dmitri Demushkin was the leader of the organization ‘Slavyanskaya Sila’ [Slavic Power] which propagandized national socialist ideology similar to the ideology of Fascist Germany.”

The date of the Russian March also marks the newest holiday in the country's calendar, created in 2005 at the Kremlin’s initiative: “People’s Unity Day.”

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.

-0- Oct/27/2011 13:28 GMT