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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#27 - JRL 2008-61 - JRL Home
From: "Stanislav Menshikov" <menschivok@globalxs.nl>
Date: Fri, 21 Mar 2008

Ever since Dmitry Medvedev was named by Vladimir Putin his successor as Russia's president, the political West has been speculating as to what to expect from the new leader in Moscow. The guesswork proceeded from the widely held assumption that the Kremlin newcomer was a liberal signifying inevitable change in policy from his hardline predecessor.

Changes would be big or small, fast or slow, depending on whether the new president turned out to be the older one's puppet or rather an independent strong willed individual. But in all cases, changes would be favorable to the West. One political analyst went to the extreme of suggesting that given time, Medvedev would get rid of Putin and his policies.

In the past two years, Mr. Putin has become a particular source of irritation and object of attacks on the part of Western, particularly US politicians and media. Long gone was the 'partnership honeymoon' that had emerged after George W. Bush looked Putin in the eyes and thought he saw there another Gorbachev or Yeltsin ready to make new unilateral concessions. It was now a different Putin who realized he was getting back nothing tangible for his nice behavior.

The new, 'nasty' Putin was not only talking back with scathing rhetoric, but also making it harder for the US in Iran, Venezuela, Central Asia, Abkhazia, Serbia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. He was mixing up cards in the NATO expansion game and ABM plans in Eastern Europe.

Even more than for foreign policy Putin was castigated in the West for building up what it called an autocratic regime inside Russia. He eliminated popular elections of regional governors and city mayors, as well as independent (non party) deputies to the lower house or the federal parliament. By various means, he managed to squeeze out of parliament the two former leading liberal right wing parties. He established government control over most national television channels and some central newspapers. The country was practically left without a full fledged political opposition. Western criticism was brushed aside, protests against alleged political repression ignored.

Many analysts attributed Putin's prowess to Russia's economic recovery over which he presided during his years in power due largely to skyrocketing oil prices. In that stretch of time, Russia eliminated its dependence on loans from the IMF, paid out most of its huge former foreign indebtedness, became an energy superpower, EU's largest supplier of natural gas. It also managed to modernize some of its intercontinental ballistic force. It was no longer the enfeebled Russia it had become under Yeltsin. Once again, it was returning as a nightmare to at least part of the Western world.

Then came the good news - bad news story. Good news: Putin was leaving as president and ceding the Kremlin to a liberal. Bad news: Putin was staying as prime-minister and would be breathing down the liberal's neck for as long as one could see. So how could the West gain from this new situation? What bill of wishes it would be sending to Medvedev? And, most importantly, can and will he pay that bill?

Such a bill has, to my mind, never been spelled out but one could easily imagine what it might be given Moscow's principal points of disagreement with the West in recent months. In foreign policy this would be:

- agree to the deployment of US ABM bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, perhaps with some sweetener attached;

- drop or soften objections to expanding NATO to Ukraine and Georgia;

- discontinue work on building the Busheir nuclear energy plant in Iran and fully cooperate with the US in sanctions against that country;

- refrain from sales of sophisticated weaponry to countries classified as 'rogue; by the US;

- drop plans to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and North Ossetia.

The Western bill might also include a few economic points, for instance:

- liberalizing Western access to natural gas deposits on Russian territory;

- drop opposition to the construction of the competing Nabucco gas pipeline connecting Europe with Central Asia by a roundabout route avoiding Russian territory.

The bill would also presumably include human rights points such as;

- raising restrictions on public protest demonstrations;

- liberalize status of nongovernmental and other organizations financed from abroad;

- grant pardon for former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

To some that list might seem like a trifle easily acceptable for a Russian liberal. That is probably true of an opposition liberal but not of a liberal in power. The latter has to bear in mind the prevailing public opinion as well as his powerful conservative partners in the ruling group where he doesn't enjoy a majority.

But first, what are Medvedev's credentials as a liberal? For that we have no solid evidence since so far he has not served in non-bureaucratic positions where liberal views and policies would have been clearly and publicly demonstrated. We do have a recommendation from Anatoly Chubais, a right wing and pro-western politician in his own right. But we also have Mr. Putin'word for it though, of course, Putin's understanding of liberalism is very different from that of Chubais. The West obviously belies the electricity tsar but that could easily be wishful thinking.

Suppose for a moment that their guess is right. Even then it would be highly improbable that a person who ran on 'continuing Paten's policy' ticket would start with making a political u-turn and openly pursue an anti-Putin course with Putin heading the government and an absolute pro-Putin majority in parliament. For a truly liberal new president to break that status quo would take quite some time, at least more than one term.

Putin has claimed in the German chancellor's presence that it will not be easier for the West with Medvedev because he is a 'Russian nationalist in the good sense of the word'. What that means is following the national interest which in more cases than not differs from how the West sees it.

In Russia, Medvedev would widely be considered a traitor to Putin and the country if he yielded to Western demands, as spelled out above. But it is not only that risk that would be stopping him. It would also be his own policy on national security and other matters worked out together with Putin as major participant of their joint team that he would be deserting. That is highly unlikely. There might be shifts in style and language, but not changes in substance.