Although he owes his advancement to Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Medvedev may prove a surprisingly liberal president of Russiaby Andreas Umland / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Most Russian and western observers see the man who has just been elected Russia’s new president as at best a relatively liberal figure, if not a faceless opportunist. Some think Dmitri Medvedev will be merely a second Putin, whose election just means more of what we have seen during the last eight years. But Medvedev’s early political biography, as well as more recent statements of his on such issues as multi-party competition, freedom of the press and Russia’s relations to the west, point in a different direction. Should the Russian presidential administration come under the lasting and full control of Medvedev, the Kremlin will become a focal point of pro-democratic tendencies in Moscow. This development could lead to something not dissimilar to a second perestroika.
Medvedev’s CV differs in important respects from Putin’s. Both the outgoing and new Russian presidents were law students who grew up and studied in St Petersburg. Yet Medvedev, 13 years younger than his predecessor, has no known KGB background, and had already started to be active in politics during the heyday of Gorbachev’s glasnost, while Putin was still serving the KGB in Dresden. In early 1989, studying for an advanced law degree at Leningrad State University, Medvedev worked as an election campaigner for his professor Anatoly Sobchak—then a prominent leader of Russia’s emerging democratic movement running for a seat in the USSR parliament. This was, to be sure, only a brief episode in Medvedev’s biography. His subsequent political career followed a relatively straightforward trajectory: posts within St Petersburg city council and then inside Russian presidential administrations, and later chairman of the huge gas monopoly Gazprom, before his appointment by Putin as deputy prime minister. Yet Medvedev’s brief involvement in the Russian democratic movement is still significant. Back in 1989, it was not clear whether the Soviet system was coming to an end, and becoming an anti-communist activist still held a real risk.
Moreover, this rarely noted aspect of Medvedev’s biography correlates with those political announcements that have been shaping his public profile for the last years. The phrase the Kremlin usually deploys in defence of anti-western foreign and illiberal domestic policies—”sovereign democracy”—was rejected by Medvedev in an interview for the popular journal Ekspert in July 2006 as “a far from ideal term… when qualifying additions are made to the word ‘democracy,’ this leaves one with a strange aftertaste.” In an earlier interview, Medvedev had stated…