(Editor's note: Today's entry is by…..a guest blogger! It is breaking new ground for ginandtacos. Three things struck me. First, it would be relevant and interesting to say something about the recent Russian election. Second, I know dick about Russia. Third, I know people who know a lot about Russia. So with little further ado, enjoy what my colleague (and regular commenter) Brandon Wilkening has to say about it. Incidentally, I'm more than willing to let regulars do guest posts! If there's a topic you feel particularly keen to write about, feel free to let me know via email.)

The Democratic presidential candidates earned some mild criticism in their final debate last week when they were unable to identify the future Russian president by name. When Tim Russert asked the candidates what they could say about him, Barrack Obama looked somewhat nervously at Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to butcher his name, before giving up and exclaiming “Whatever!” I just want to make a couple of points about this. First, the moderate rebuke that they did receive in the blogosphere (particularly among Russia watchers) was entirely justified, as I consider the failure to be able to name the soon-to-be president of the world’s largest country right up there with some of Bush’s early foreign policy misstatements (not to imply that either candidate is at Bush's level of ignorance). Second, Hillary’s exasperated “Whatever!” was particularly cringe worthy and reminded me of Sean Hannity’s ignorant dismissal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name.

That said, perhaps the most disappointing thing for me about that short debate was lack of any substance in what they had to say about the presumptive victor. Hillary largely dismissed the man, Dmitry Medvedev, as Putin’s handpicked successor and essentially a stooge, and Obama largely echoed her points. Okay, yes, he is Putin’s handpicked successor in the sense that whomever Putin endorsed to be his successor was almost guaranteed to be able to ride Putin’s popularity to an easy victory. And I understand the almost reflexive need for American politicians to criticize Russia’s backsliding on democracy, a criticism with which I largely agree. Nevertheless, Putin’s exit from the presidency and the ascendance of Medvedev, who easily won this past Sunday with nearly 70% of the vote, both offer an opportunity for the next U.S President to forge closer and more constructive ties with Russia. While Medvedev can hardly be described as an eager puppet for American interests, he sounds like somebody with whom the U.S. and its Western allies can work, making it all the more disappointing that Clinton and Obama were so casually dismissive of the man.

First, a multitude of x-factors seriously complicate the exercise of trying to predict Russia’s political future. The first concerns Putin's future role. What is known is that he will become Prime Minister, which has led to speculation that Putin will enhance the power of that position and thereby retain his dominant role in Russian politics. Under Russia’s strong presidential system, the PM position has long been a thankless administrative job. If Putin were to remake the position into a serious locus of power, it would represent a transformative change. Frankly, a more serious counterweight to the president (especially since the Russian Duma has largely been transformed into a rubber stamp parliament) might not be a bad thing for Russia. The worry, of course, is that the newly empowered PM would be Putin, who has increasingly played an assertive geopolitical role, often times challenging American and Western interests. There is also speculation that PM Putin and President Medvedev would split responsibilities, with the former concentrating on domestic tasks and the latter on foreign policy, or possibly vice versa.

The other big x-factor concerns Medvedev himself. Assuming that he does inherit the vast powers of the Russian presidency and is able to make his mark on Russia’s political future, what will be his governing style? Here I believe there is some room for optimism. The first thing to note is that Medvedev and Putin come from utterly different social milieus. While the latter rose through the ranks of the KGB, Medvedev is an academic. His primary responsibilities as one of Putin’s top deputies has been the implementation of a number of national projects, including education, agriculture, health, and housing. He appears to favor a less ideological, more technocratic governing style. In recent speeches, he has publicly repudiated the official state ideology of “sovereign democracy” by arguing that Russian democracy should not be preceded by adjectives. His campaign speeches (uncontested, since the Russian campaign did not feature debates with the largely marginalized opposition) lacked the nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric recently ascendant in Russian political discourse, instead largely focusing on the solution of economic problems. Finally, his rather amiable public persona presents a sharp contrast to Putin’s often icy style.

Of course, all of this will be irrelevant if he turns out to be a mere figurehead assigned to do Putin’s bidding. But let's not jump to that conclusion. First, Medvedev didn't reach this position by accident. His name has long been mentioned as a possible successor, but for several months prior to the official announcement many assumed that Putin would name Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s former Defense Minister. Given his military background and nationalist credentials, Ivanov would have been the obvious choice to continue a legacy of state centralism, nationalist rhetoric, and anti-Western foreign policy. That Putin did not choose Ivanov or one of his other cronies from the intelligence services, but rather a brainy technocrat suspected of having reformist sympathies is intriguing to me. Your inner cynic argues that Putin knew he would be able to control Medvedev more easily. I this argument unconvincing. If Putin was looking for a stooge, there is certainly no shortage of them in contemporary Russia. Instead, he chose Medvedev, somebody with a prominent public role and nationwide name recognition.

My analysis is rosier than most, and I don’t mean to gloss over the real challenges both in U.S.-Russian relations and the state of Russia’s domestic politics. The election campaign was definitely a farce. Opposition candidates faced indifference from the national media, new electoral laws present nearly insurmountable hurdles, and an electoral commission used technicalities to bar many candidates from running. In addition, I don’t expect U.S.-Russian relations to improve overnight, as the two countries will continue to clash over Kosovo, missile defense, and American involvement in Russia’s backyard – especially post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. In addition, a McCain presidency would be particularly disastrous for U.S.-Russian relations, as McCain, rightly or wrongly, has been a harsh critic of Putin and is largely reviled in the Russian political establishment. Nevertheless, I feel somewhat vindicated in my optimism after attending a talk at Indiana University on Tuesday by Oleg Kalugin. Kalugin, a former KGB general and later reformist, has essentially been in political exile in the United States since publicly criticizing Putin. If anybody has reason to be pessimistic about Russia’s future, it would be him. On the contrary, he sounded optimistic that Medvedev would reduce the role of the security and intelligence services in Russia and represent a decisive break with Putin’s style of governance. I don’t expect that break to be quick or clean, but I firmly believe that this opening provides an opportunity that the next American president would be foolish to pass up.

4 thoughts on “RUSSIAN ARK”

  • Mr. Wilkening,
    What possible relevance could there be to the content of Mr. Medvedev's campaign speeches? He was the Kremlin's designated successor. He could have made a whistle-stop tour of Mother Russia making stump speeches consisting of nothing but quacking sounds if he wanted. It wouldn't have changed anything. If there are no other real candidates, it isn't an "election", and if there's no real need to compete for votes, one can say anything one pleases.

    Or do you propose that the Russian people – or perhaps the Russian media – would hold Medvedev to his campaign promises? "Wait!" the newsman would cry as he is pummeled into the pavement, "what about your campaign pledge to work for meaningful reform of municipal politics? ARRGH!"

    Why did the Kremlin choose Medvedev as Putin's successor? I agree with your implication that no one outside the Kremlin could rule out the possibility that the ruling clique of gangsters and ex-KGB men would like to be reformed out of power. That's possible. Maybe they're tired of being in charge, and would like to go home and tend their gardens. But I submit that it is more likely that (1) Medvedev is a stooge, and (2) he is part of the same club as Putin.

    Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss…

  • Ben,

    Thanks for your response. I'll make several points. First, regarding the relevance of Medvedev's campaign speeches, you're absolutely correct to doubt their relevance as an indicator of Medvedev's governing style. But, since this is an inherently speculative affair, his public pronouncements, as well as his bio, are about the best we have to go on. And the fact that Medvedev's public speeches have had a far less strident and more practical tone than any of a number of people Putin could have chosen is for me at least a small basis for optimism amid a number of reasons for pessimism. In a nutshell, I think Medvedev is about the best that those who want Russia to move in more democratic, Western direction could have hoped for. I think it is unrealistic to expect Mr. Putin to appoint Vaclav Havel as his successor, given the current reality of Russian politics (a reality Putin helped shape, of course).

    Regarding the ability or willingness of the Russian people to hold their leaders accountable, well, they're no different than anybody else in terms of not liking it when their leaders fuck them over, so I'm not quite sure what your point was. People in Russia protest against the government just like anywhere else. Most of these occur at the local level and are directed against regional authorities. If you are referring to the structural and electoral obstacles that have neutered the opposition, I agree that this is a problem. I think a lot of people don't understand that the constituency for a liberal opposition just doesn't exist in Russia now. Like it or not the Communist Party is the only real opposition party with a nationwide constituency. This is due to several factors, including the fact that Putin has won over many would-be liberals by presiding over economic growth and stability. In addition, I think it's clear that there has been a rightward shift in public opinion, due to the Kremlin's use of nationalist rhetoric and the reemergence of Russia as a geopolitical force. To the extent that Medvedev tones down the anti-Western, nationalist rhetoric, I see that as a good thing.

    I think you seriously twisted my argument in claiming that I implied that "the ruling clique of gangsters and ex-KGB men would like to be reformed out of power. That’s possible. Maybe they’re tired of being in charge, and would like to go home and tend their gardens." First of all, the clique that you cite is not united. There are multiple factions at the highest levels of power in Russia, so whomever Putin endorsed, somebody was going to be pissed. The precise sociology of these factions is unclear, but there does seem to be a split between the siloviki (former KGB men) and the technocrats. Medvedev is a creature of the latter. I never implied that Medvedev was the unanimous choice of these siloviki, all of whom wanted to retire to their dachas at the twilight of their careers. To the contrary, Putin chose Medvedev instead of one of the siloviki's preferred candidates.

    And no, these guys won't retire to their dachas. They will remain a formidable force, one whose interests Medvedev will have to take into account. But in a context where these informal cliques and factions are clearly more important than political parties, to simply ignore the rising fortune of one faction at the expense of another seems shortsighted. Why would Putin be trying to reduce the role of the siloviki? I don't know. Maybe he sees himself as a Deng-type figure. Deng was clearly a creature of Mao's revolutionary generation, yet he saw the chaos that Mao's policies were leading China into. Similarly, I think that Putin might see himself as somebody who performed a historically necessary task, namely restoring Russia to a prominent place in the world, creating stability, presiding over economic growth, etc. Yet he might also realize the dangers posed by economic statism and the inordinate role of the siloviki in the organs of power. Is this speculation? Fuck yes! But so is your contention that Russia is ruled by a monolithic clan that is united in its economic and political interests and that will be united in pulling Medvedev's strings.

    Finally, I started and ended my post by commenting on US foreign policy. My point stands that, even if Mr. Medvedev turns out not to have an upper hand in the future governing arrangements, he is still somebody that the future president should reach out to and encourage.

  • Let me begin by quoting noted legal scholar Lionel Hutz, who stated, "I've got plenty of hearsay and conjecture. Those are *kinds* of evidence."

    Like Brandon, I have high hopes for Russia's future. I, however, do not believe that Mr. Medvedev is the person to bring those hopes into reality. Several points lead me to this conclusion. First, while Brandon's insights are very well-thought out and logical, he's essentially participating in a form of neo-Kremlinology. The political system in Russia is so opaque that we are forced to make assumptions about Putin's rationale for choosing a successor. I do not have much hope for a system or its leaders if they are chosen in the same manner as medieval kings or the pope.

    This leads to my second point, in the current Russian political system, the president holds almost all the political power. In such a system, the psychological makeup of the person in power is a crucial factor in how the state functions. As Gen. Kalugin pointed out in his talk, Vladimir Putin was a street thug with a Napoleon complex and Russia of 2008 reflects this. While Mr. Medvedev might be a genuinely decent person, are you willing to bet the future of Russia (and possibly Europe) on our impressions of someone who the rest of the world is not entirely familiar with?

    My third point involves the future role of Mr. Putin as Mr. Medvedev's Prime Minister. As reform minded and pro-Western as Mr. Medvedev might be, won't that be diminished by some degree by having Mr. Putin standing over his shoulder? Had Mr. Putin decided to step aside and leave government altogether or perhaps head into the private sector, I might have more optimism, but as it stands now there is no reason to believe that Mr. Medvedev is more than an instrument for another 8 years of Putinism.

    Finally, in relations to US-Russian relations, I have to admit that I am ashamed that our prospective democratic candidates for president have no idea who Mr. Medvevev is. That alone is enough to set bilateral relations back several steps. At least whoever the new president will be will have Mr. Putin around to help out (sarcasm intended).

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