Few commentators read Dmitry Medvedev’s November 15, 2008 presidential address in its entirety. Medvedev speaks as a hawk on foreign policy, blasting Tbilisi’s “adventurism” which was a “pretext for NATO naval vessels to enter the Black Sea” and to “speed up the imposition of an American missile defense system on Europe.” Most readers did not go beyond this point, concluding Putin and Medvedev are one. The rest of the address, however, takes a quite different tack. It emphasizes the need to defend the Constitution (which gives him an advantage over Putin) and is full of veiled attacks on Putin’s way of governing. Medvedev is allying himself with popular sentiments on foreign policy while cautiously probing popular weaknesses in domestic policy that he may wish to explore in the future.
Let me cite what I regard as the key anti-Putin quote in the address:
“The cult of the state and the illusory wisdom of the administrative apparatus have prevailed in Russia over many centuries. Individuals with their rights and freedoms, personal interests and problems, have been seen as at best a means and at worst an obstacle for strengthening the state’s might. But the bureaucracy still does not trust free citizens and free activity. This logic pushes it into dangerous conclusions and acts. The bureaucracy from time to time casts fear over the business world, pressuring it to keep in line and not to take what they consider wrong action, takes control of this or that media outlet, trying to stop it from saying what they consider the wrong thing, meddles in the electoral process, preventing the election of what they consider the wrong person, and puts pressure on the courts, stopping them from handing down what they consider the wrong verdict. The result is that the state bureaucracy is the biggest employer, most active publisher, best producer, and is its own court, own political party, and ultimately its own people. This is a completely ineffective system and leads only to corruption. ..But an all-powerful bureaucracy is a mortal danger for civil society. This is why our society must continue calm and steady work to build up its democratic institutions and not delay this work.”
Medvedev is Putin’sonly potential challenger. Perhaps Putin has some means of making sure he stays loyal; perhaps not. Medvedev’s anti-Putin remarks are perhaps “cheap talk”. The typical Russian succession is one of like thinkers. Vested interests have much to lose and will fight change tooth and mail. If Medvedev does replace Putin, will he make a difference? The odds are that he would not, despite his brave words.