The talk that Dmitry Medvedev gave to the All-Russian Civic Forum on January 22 was a vintage election campaign speech: rich on generalities and short on specifics. But why would Medvedev — an out-of-reach front-runner who has just registered a 82% approval rating — need to discuss "issues"?
Medvedev may skip the TV debates (as he reportedly has decided) or stay entirely mute at all and yet, he’s all but assured of a landslide victory in the first round of the March 2 presidential election because he’s exactly what the Russian voters want of their next president.
Eight years ago, the bleeding country needed a change, and the change came in a young and athletic Vladimir Putin. (And, boy, those lucky Russians didn’t even have to choose between "change" and "experience"!) Today, all the country wants is continuity (perhaps, a better word than "stability"), and it’s exactly the continuity/stability that Medvedev brings to the table.
Borrowing a line from the American political vocabulary, Medvedev is running on the successful track record of his predecessor, President Putin. Medvedev’s speech left little doubt that he’s taking full credit for the economic and political reforms of the Putin era.
Many believe that Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the anemic People’s Democratic Union, has been barred from running for president because the Kremlin is afraid that Kasyanov would use the pulpit of his campaign to criticize Putin.
An alternative explanation is more likely. Kasyanov had been Putin’s Prime Minister in 2000-2004, and as such, was ultimately involved in implementing the liberal economic reforms that eventually resulted in improved living conditions for millions of ordinary Russians. Kasyanov’s participation in the race would have deprived Medvedev a monopoly on claiming the same.
Yet, in some profound ways, Medvedev’s presidency will be dramatically different from Putin’s.
One of the most vexing aspects of Putin’s presidency has been accepting the results of the privatization of the 90s, which most Russians considered — and still do — unfair, unjust and outright criminal. The destruction of Yukos and the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky should be viewed as a conscious attempt by Putin to mitigate the damage the privatization had caused to the trust that the Russian society had in the state.
Not surprisingly, the privatization has been a frequent topic in public addresses by Putin and his main ideologue, Vladislav Surkov. It’s thus very characteristic that in his speech, Medvedev hasn’t mentioned the privatization even once.
And he shouldn’t. The "dirty" job of wrestling the political and economic power from the oligarchs has been done by Putin. Instead, Medvedev has a luxury of building up an amicable rapport with Russian citizens by supervising populist "national projects" and distributing parts of a hydrocarbon windfall. One wouldn’t be surprised if, as a result, on March 2, Medvedev will get more votes than Putin got in 2004.
Some analysts found it ironic, even blasphemous, that Medvedev advocated further development of a multi-party system in Russia — given the fact that he has been nominated by United Russia, the party that is virtually dominating the Russian political life.
Medvedev obviously knows what he’s talking about. His presidency will witness a dramatic re-structuring of the country’s political party landscape. What is going to happen to the current players on the field is a separate topic. But watch out — the creation of four sub-factions within the United Russia’s huge Duma faction is more than just a bureaucratic fluke. Something is brewing in the bowels of the "Putin’s party."
There have been attempts to interpret Medvedev’s speech as an indication that he’s going to conduct a more "liberal" foreign policy. These attempts are either bad cases of a wishful thinking or, worse, a result of misunderstanding of what "liberal" means with respect to foreign policy.
Medvedev will stand for the Russia’s national interests with the same passion and strength as his predecessor, President Putin. The only thing that Medvedev might have hinted at in his speech is that the West may get a second chance at understanding Russia’s goals, objectives, objections, and grievances in the global affairs.
To this end, Medvedev will be ready to meet with any foreign leader who would be willing to meet with him. Medvedev will come to these meetings with eyes wide open and let his foreign interlocutors to take a peek into his soul.