ANALYSIS: As Putin takes power, Medvedev viewed largely as the little engine that could have but didn’t

Publish date: May 7, 2012

From the moment of his inauguration in a glistening ceremony at the State Kremlin Palace in May 2008, the odds were always going to be stacked against Dmitry Medvedev and his attempt to leave his mark on a presidency that his critics saw as little more than a political convenience.

President for a single term and a lame duck head of state since the fall, Medvedev steps down today – as agreed – to hand the reigns of power that he only borrowed back to once and future President Vladimir Putin as heassumes his third presidential term – so orchestrated to be increased to six years from the previous four-year term limit during the brief time Medvedev kept his office warm.

Russian media have recalled that a month into his term as president, Medvedev was introduced at an energy forum in St. Petersburg with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of Russia, Vladimir…”

The announcer corrected his error before the word “Putin” had left his lips and Medvedev took the gaff In good humor. But it came to symbolize his presidency as he struggled – and largely failed – to shake off the shadow of his all-powerful mentor, who had been forced to sit briefly in the wings by Russia’s Constitution, which forbids more than two consecutive stints as president – but is silent on subsequent terms.

That Medvedev was at worst a mannequin and at best of puppet for the policies of Putin – who took up the role of prime minister during Medvedev’s term – however, is something with which Medvedev could never completely reconcile. It also seemed to doom whatever good intentions with which he may have hoped to stamp Russian history – intentions that invariably petered out or backfired. 

With his passion for the rock band Deep Purple and his bookish manner – Medvedev was initially hailed by Russia’s middle class and analysts as a possible antidote to the gruff-talking, former KGB officer Putin – something from time to time the now former president seemed to embrace, only to be quietly knocked back into place.

Critically – or so it was hoped – Medvedev was also the first Russian leader whose political views had not been forged in service of the Soviet system.

Damaged goods

But the announcement in September that Putin would return as president dealt a heavy blow to Medvedev’s profile, suggesting that he meekly surrendered a position he wanted. It reeked of weakness — a dangerous thing in a system that venerates forcefulness and strength.

This problem is immediate now, as Medvedev prepares to take the post of prime minister and the chairmanship of United Russia, Putin’s parliamentary party of power, under the perception that he is damaged goods.

Nonetheless, Medvedev did have his flashes of presidential independence – often taking positions on the environment and human rights that ran against the grain of the legacy he was left to nurture and tend.

Unfortunately, to the minds of many of those his policy proposals may have benefitted, Medvedev was for the most part ineffectual, and will most likely be remembered as such – raising a deeper question for the politician himself : Will he be credited with taking some hard knocks for the team? 

Try though he might…

On May 3, Medvedev made effort to cobble together a swan song showing his heart was in the right place in the form of signing a 2,900-word environmental policy document published Monday on the Kremlin website that would offer more freedom of information.

Under the document, activists, journalists and private citizens could find it easier to access information about the environmental records of businesses and government agencies under a new policy approved by outgoing President Medvedev.

“Principles of state policy on environmental development in the Russian Federation in the period up to 2030” for the first time identifies “global environmental problems associated with climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification and other negative environmental processes” as having an impact on Russian national interests.

The report also singles out poor water treatment, degradation of agricultural soil and increasing volumes of waste as major challenges facing the country.

Proposals in the wide-ranging document include promoting “environmentally oriented economic growth,” slashing pollution from industry to levels “of other developed countries” and making environmental education a key part of schools’ curriculum.

Businesses may face compulsory environmental impact assessments for new developments, phased introduction of a system of an environmental audit system and a ban on unsorted garbage.

The document offers no estimate of the costs of the transition to higher standards, but says such projects will be financed from federal and regional budgets, as well as public-private partnerships.

Medvedev’s environmental swan song more like the ugly duckling

Some environmentalists have applauded the sentiments, but warned that though the strategy promises much, it offers little detail. Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, was especially unsparing.

“In an of itself “Principles of state policy on environmental development in the Russian Federation in the period up to 2030” there is nothing much to say, and it decides even less,” he said.

These are generally the right words and slogans that everyone knows and to which no one has raised any objections.”

“For us at Bellona – much as other ecological NGOs – this document hardly sets any goals for further work, because all it does is repeat the same truths we have all been saying all along,”

Nikitin said that for the document to have any lasting effect, “the government needs to prepare and approve a plan for the implementation of all the pretty words that are contained in the document, develop and introduce into federal and regional programs specific targets that will help assess whether the tasks specified in the document are being accomplished or not.”

“All this constitutes difficult and painstaking work, and it’s not a certainty that it will result in a success. What’s more likely is that it will end the way [former Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin used to say: ‘We wanted the best, but it turned out as always,’” said Nikitin, adding that  Russian and Soviet history was replete with such bold plans.

“The resultс we see of such plans today is exactly zero,” he said.

Khimki flip-flop

Medvedev also played a key role in the Khimki forest dispute which boiled over in the summer of 2010 as activists faced down the government over an $8 billion high speed toll highway that is to run to St. Petersburg through the ancient wood north of Moscow.

After a summer of violent protests and clashes between, activists, construction companies and in some cases unidentified thugs – as well as activist support from Russian rock stars and U2’s bono – Medvedev that August agreed to halt the project while the government reviewed different route proposals.

By December that year, however, Medvedev bowed to the initial plans for the road for reasons he did not immediately explain, but the number of state crony companies involved in the project did not help the cause. Medvedev was again the lightning rod for environmental criticism and hostility.

The conclusion of the government report on moving the project from Khimki was that it “would be only marginally less expensive” to find another site.

The human rights council

In a move that followed a series of prominent murders a of several journalists, the assassination of a human rights lawyer, beatings of environmental and civil society activists, and a governmental strangle-hold on NGOs, Medvedev reinvigorated the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights Development.

Russia’s human rights community was initially wary. The re-forming of the council came some nine months into Medvedev’s presidency and coincided with Russia’s financial crisis and a  dip in Putin’s popularity due largely to ongoing human rights abuses.

But it at least offered a path for dialogue.

In March this year, ERC Bellona Executive Director Nikolai Rybakov was part of a group of environmentalists to deliver a report on the rough shape of Russia’s ecology during a meeting of the council in March.

But Rybakov and others noted that Medvedev seemed to simply be going through the motions. That the council will be disbanding somewhat acrimoniously was evidenced by the group’ss last meeting with Medvedev last Saturday.  On Wednesday at a press conference, four of its 40 members announced they would not continue to serve on the council under president Putin were they invited to do so.

Medvedev himself expressed disappointment in what the group had been able to accomplish during his presidency.

Modernization and open society a flop

Despite Medvedev’s trumpeting of a “more open society,” these reforms have yet to be implemented in full. He likewise failed to make headway on his stated goals of modernization, liberalization and eradicating the country’s age-old culture of corruption.

“A lot was announced during his presidency, but very little was done,” said Yelena Pozdnyakova, analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “People had invested their hopes in Medvedev, but were ultimately disappointed by him.”

“Medvedev has not left any clear impression,” said analyst Sergei Mikheyev of the Center for Political Assessment, “it’s not possible to say exactly what he stood for.”

“He acted in a fairly contradictory manner, and this amorphous nature of his rule and actions mean it is impossible to form a firm opinion about him,” he added. “He will be remembered as a second-rate president who was controlled by Putin.”

And though Medvedev may not be able to say “I did it my way” as he steps down from the presidential dais, he has at least said he tried.

Speaking in a live, televised interview just over a week before the end of his presidency, Medvedev confessed that “four years is not that long” and that he had simply not had time to push through all the reforms he had sought.

But he denied in what was effectively his farewell interview as president that he had felt a sense of frustration during his term of office.

‘Sure, I’ve been in bad moods,” he said in an interview aired live on state-run television in late April. “Very bad moods. But there has been no desperation.”

And with Medvedev set to become prime minister, there are those who suggested a more effective period could lie ahead. 

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