Most analysts foresee a Kremlin double act after a loaded election, but some optimists scent a wind of change in Medvedev
The campaign has been drearily insipid; the result a foregone conclusion. Unlike in the US, where the presidential election remains tantalisingly open, Russia’s presidential election has been a lacklustre affair – because the man who counts has already voted.
Vladimir Putin announced last December that he was backing Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, to be the next President. Medvedev swiftly offered Putin the job of Prime Minister. Ever since, the Kremlin has been using its vast administrative resources to make this happy scenario come true. Millions of public sector workers have been told to vote for Medvedev or lose their jobs. Additionally, zealous election functionaries are preparing to stuff ballot boxes tonight to ensure that he wins a landslide victory.
The same tactic was used in Russia’s rigged parliamentary elections in December, which saw some areas of the country, most notably Chechnya and other parts of the north Caucasus, deliver a 99 per cent vote for Putin’s United Russia party. Turnout was an equally improbable 99.6 per cent. Fraudulent elections have now become an established part of Russian political life – in the words of the Soviet dissident Sergei Kovalev a ‘tasteless farce being played out by untalented directors on the entire, boundless Russian stage’.
Many Russians, however, will vote willingly for Medvedev today, believing him to be decent, competent and even cuddly. Nobody is in any doubt that Medvedev – a 42-year-old lawyer from St Petersburg – has the only attribute that matters: Vladimir Putin’s trust.
In the run-up to today’s poll, Kremlin spin-doctors have portrayed Medvedev as a representative of Russia’s new and aspiring middle class: a modest, internet-savvy, cosmopolitan leader who holidays on the Black Sea and likes the veteran British rock band Deep Purple. Like his friend and mentor Putin, Medvedev grew up in Leningrad, Russia’s most European city, now St Petersburg. In an interview with the magazine Itogi, Medvedev spoke lyrically of his ordinary childhood. His parents were university teachers. They didn’t have ‘much money’, but weren’t starving either, he said, adding that his teenage dream was to own a pair of Wrangler jeans and Pink Floyd’s The Wall
Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, were teenage sweethearts who met at school; their son, Ilya, was born in 1996. He recalled working as a labourer and a snow-sweeper while studying law at Leningrad State University, where he took a PhD. ‘I never strived for, or dreamed, that the world would know about me,’ Medvedev said. In 1991 he met Putin when both worked for St Petersburg’s mayor. But Medvedev’s real personality is a mystery. Observers agree that, having survived the shark-pool of Kremlin politics, first as Putin’s campaign manager for the 2000 presidential elections and then as his chief of staff, he is no patsy. He became First Deputy Prime Minister in 2005. His job is to oversee health, education and agriculture – all in bad shape.
The questions now are how will Medvedev and Putin work together? Who will dominate? Does Medvedev have a post-Putin agenda? Political analysts find it tough to explain how Russia will function from May, when Medvedev becomes the Federation’s third post-Soviet leader. They have used words such as tandem, diarchy and dualism – all alien to Russia, which has traditionally relied on a single autocrat.
‘Decisions will be made in a tandem behind closed doors,’ Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Centre for Political Technologies, Russia’s oldest independent think-tank, said. ‘We can only guess how these decisions will be made,’ he said. Others have compared Putin’s future role to that of St Sergius, a 14th-century saint and monastic reformer who advised Moscow’s medieval prince Dmitry Donskoy on how to beat the Mongols. Most observers believe Putin will remain the dominant figure in politics, possibly returning as President in 2012. Others think Putin is tired and does not really want to head the new government – aware that his popularity could rapidly vanish as the country’s multiple economic problems (inflation, liquidity) pile up.
Most experts believe Russia’s belligerent attitude to the West in the late Putin era is unlikely to change soon. ‘Medvedev will be the same as Putin, but with a more smiley face. The distribution of powers between the two will be so complex it would be suicidal to pursue a different agenda,’ Grigorii Golosov, a professor of political sciences at St Petersburg’s European University, said. Asked whether Medvedev had a world view of his own, he said: ‘Who knows? At the moment he doesn’t say. Any differences with Putin are stylistic, not substantive.’
A few optimists, however, believe that Medvedev could be a progressive leader, who might even unravel Putinism. In a speech last month in Krasnoyarsk, Medvedev said Russia desperately needed an independent judiciary and a free press. ‘Freedom is better than non-freedom,’ Medvedev said, also calling for economic reforms and an end to bureaucratic corruption. What is not clear is whether he means what he says or whether this is merely a Putin-approved ploy to assuage an international community that has grown weary of Putin’s West-bashing.
‘I think there is a 50/50 chance Medvedev could turn into a real progressive leader,’ Andrei Ryabov, an expert in politics at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said. ‘It depends on Medvedev’s political will. It’s like in France under the Fifth Republic, back in the Sixties, when Charles de Gaulle ran an authoritarian regime. But his successors using the same constitution were very different.’
All of this poses a problem for Gordon Brown. Ever since the murder of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Britain’s relationship with Russia has been atrocious. Should Brown pick up the phone tomorrow to congratulate Medvedev on his ‘victory’? Or should he wait for the next instalment of the Cold War between London and Moscow – which won’t be long in coming – to arrive?
· More than 109 million Russians across 11 time zones can vote today for any one of four candidates. About 96,000 polling stations are open.
· Russia is a semi-presidential republic with a population of 142 million. It shares land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and North Korea.
· The largest country, it covers more than an eighth of the planet’s land area and has a quarter of its fresh water.