John McCain pushed to suspend Russia’s membership in the G8 as early as 2005. Hillary Clinton says she looked into Vlad Putin’s eyes and saw that he didn’t have a soul and she says nothing will change with Dmitry Medvedev’s election. Barack Obama’s position seems pretty similar.
The fact is, no one really has a full picture of what Medvedev’s election will mean for Russia. Anyone saying otherwise is selling something.
I just made plans for a short visit to Russia in May, my first visit since I lived there for most of 2003. I’m looking forward to getting a better sense of Russian perceptions of their “new” government.
That being said, even Russians are relatively uncertain about the direction of their country. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Putin has established a political dynasty for himself whose course he intends to direct for the indefinite future. The truth is, we’d better get comfortable with uncertainty. Also, we have to avoid at all costs prejudging Medvedev’s strength, as Clinton and Obama seem to be doing, or boxing Russia in as an enemy, as McCain has already done.
There are a few things we can count on. First, yes, Putin will have at least a sign-off on every major decision in the immediate future. Second, we shouldn’t expect any major democratic reforms anytime soon. Third, players in the Russian government will continue to rely on their bureaucratic power bases to gain influence — it’s a system that has survived different government ideologies and isn’t going away anytime soon. And finally, Russia will continue to exist in that tricky gray area between ally and adversary. There will be some confluence of interests as well as some clashes and tough love going both ways.
But I’m not prepared to jump to the conclusion that Prime Minister/President Putin is the man in charge for the next thirty years. Putin himself came to power as Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, a relative unknown upon arrival. And Medvedev’s rhetorical nods to the rule of law and liberalism hint that regardless of the tango he’s doing right now, he has his own opinions and no one writes his talking points.
I know it’s hard for U.S. policymakers to do, but it’s time to simply sit tight and watch for awhile. Track how Medvedev’s rhetoric evolves over time. See if he takes to the airwaves often. One other thing, too: at some point, whether or not Medvedev has the clout to ask for resignations (he certainly won’t for at least a while), cabinet members will start to leave. If the new appointments have backgrounds in the St. Petersburg State University Law Faculty or Gazprom — Medvedev’s base — instead of the security services or the entrenched Kremlin bureaucracy, change may be in the winds after all. It’s also worth keeping an eye on appointments of regional governors, who are appointed by the President.
I’m not counting on this change — but I’m not counting it out either.
— Scott Paul