Medvedev atop the Rus­sian bear

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

New Rus­sian pres­i­dent, Dmitry A. Medvedev, was sworn into of­fice May 7 fol­low­ing his sweep of March elec­tions. He as­sumed power amid spec­u­la­tion that he is merely a “pup­pet” of his au­thor­i­tar­ian pre­de­ces­sor, Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin, Rus­sian pres­i­dent since 2000, was con­sti­tu­tion­ally barred from serv­ing a third con­sec­u­tive term. Yet he has be­come prime min­is­ter and will con­tinue to wield con­sid­er­able power.

It is there­fore un­clear whether Mr. Medvedev will have any lat­i­tude to im­ple­ment the lib­eral re­forms he has promised through­out his cam­paign. Dur­ing his in­au­gu­ral speech, Mr. Medvedev re­it­er­ated his com­mit­ment to “pro­tect and re­spect hu­man rights and free­doms.” He stressed the im­por­tance of de­vel­op­ing Rus­sia’s civil so­ci­ety, over­haul­ing its ju­di­ciary and fight­ing cor­rup­tion. He brought par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the im­por­tance of es­tab­lish­ing the rule of law: This will un­der­gird his agenda to mod­ern­ize Rus­sia and bring more peo­ple into the mid­dle class. Fol­low­ing his elec­tion, Mr. Medvedev be­came the chair­man of a lib­eral think tank; its pro­pos­als in­clude lift­ing state con­trol over the me­dia, pro- vid­ing open po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion, fos­ter­ing ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence and cur­tail­ing state con­trol of the econ­omy.

But Mr. Medvedev’s stated lib­eral in­cli­na­tions are in sharp con­trast to dis­turb­ing facts which de­note that Rus­sia will con­tinue along its cur­rent tra­jec­tory. His very rise to power was un­demo­cratic: The March elec­tions per­mit­ted only lim­ited op­po­si­tion. Also, dur­ing the in­au­gu­ral, dis­si­dents who wished to stage a protest were de­nied a per­mit and many key fig­ures re­main in jail. The gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to ex­ert over­whelm­ing in­flu­ence over private com­pa­nies—many of which have been na­tion­al­ized.

Fur­ther­more, po­lit­i­cal power con­tin­ues to be cen­tral­ized. Mr. Putin has a firm hold over United Rus­sia Party, which holds 315 of 450 seats in the Duma. As prime min­is­ter, he will be able to set eco­nomic pol­icy. More­over, Mr. Putin en­acted leg­isla­tive re­forms by which he has con­trol over a “ver­ti­cal” power struc­ture across the na­tion: He will thus dom­i­nate pro­vin­cial and lo­cal bod­ies. The for­mer pres­i­dent is also cre­at­ing a mega-cabi­net which con­tains many fierce op­po­nents of Mr. Medvedev; they are likely to re­strict his sphere of in­flu­ence.

West­ern gov­ern­ments re­main wary of a na­tion which ap­pears to har­bor im­pe­ri­al­ist am­bi­tions. The Krem­lin has in­creased its of­fi­cial mil­i­tary spend­ing from $5 bil­lion in 2002 to $42 bil­lion this year. Moscow has also been es­ca­lat­ing its troop de­ploy­ments in Ge­or­gia in a dis­play of sol­i­dar­ity with the break­away prov­inces of Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia — an act which is an in­fringe­ment of Ge­or­gia's ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity.

Given the cur­rent con­stel­la­tion of forces, even if Mr. Medvedev is sin­cere in his avowed lib­eral prin­ci­ples, his abil­ity to im­ple­ment re­forms is lim­ited. It is likely that even un­der Mr. Medvedev’s rule, Rus­sian na­tional goals will only be achieved — as they have in the past — at great cost to the lib­er­ties of its cit­i­zens and neigh­bors.

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