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One year of Medvedev

May 7, 2009

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev marks the one-year anniversary of his coming to power on May 7. Twelve months on, questions and doubts still remain over his legitimacy and his policies.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev records a nationwide TV address
Medvedev has had a busy first 12 months in powerImage: AP

Global opinion was divided when Dmitry Medvedev became Russian president on May 7 last year.

Some saw the new leader as a puppet of Vladimir Putin, his predecessor and the man who Medvedev had served loyally throughout his two terms in office. Others saw the incoming president as a man who could drive Russia down a more liberal and democratic road, and reverse decades of state oppression.

One year on – a year during which Medvedev has waged his first war and has been thrust into the forefront of the worst global economic crisis for over 80 years – questions and doubts still remain over whether Medvedev is really the man leading Russia and if he is, whether he is the right man to reform his nation.

So to what extent has Medvedev been successful in attempting to answer those questions leveled against him?

"From Medvedev's point of view, it's probably been quite a successful year," Sam Greene, the deputy director for operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, told Deutsche Welle. "This dual system of government which was put together – with Medvedev as president and Putin as prime minister – has not been without its problems but it's worked relatively well. It's kept the ruling elite relatively cohesive and both Medvedev and Putin have remained popular politically and are seen as relatively legitimate both at home and internationally. So it has been a success story for the experiment – which is what this presidency with Putin as prime minister is; a huge political experiment.

"But from a policy perspective, in terms of the reforms that Medvedev talked about prior to becoming president; strengthening the rule of law, diversifying the economy – there really haven't been any policy successes," he added. "His rhetoric has been very good. He speaks very ably on the rule of law, on democracy, on economic liberalism but there was a lot of good rhetoric from Putin on these issues for eight years and we didn't see any progress in that direction from him either."

Criticism stems from lack of reform progress

Much of the analysis of Medvedev's first year in power focuses on these promised reforms and the progress – or lack thereof – that Russia has made in the spheres of democracy, human rights and press freedom.

According to Professor Margot Light, a Russia expert at the Center for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, Medvedev has fallen short of the optimists' expectations.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Medvedev was initially against Khodorkovsky's second trialImage: AP

"There have been many words but very few deeds," she said. "Medvedev came to power with everyone saying that he was far more liberal than Putin. In fact there has been very little sign of this. It's only been in the last couple of weeks that he's started to talk the liberal talk, by giving an interview to an opposition newspaper, for example. But apart from that there have been very little progress. There has been the second trial of (jailed Russian oil oligarch Mikhail) Khodorkovsky, even though Medvedev himself seemed to be against it; the electronic media is no freer than it was before he came to power and the non-governmental organizations are still having a tough time so there a very few signs that he has made much progress on the democratization front."

Meanwhile, Amnesty International declared on the president's first anniversary that little had been done to improve human rights in Russia since he came to power.

In a statement released on Thursday, Amnesty said that in some areas the situation has deteriorated despite initial improvements, specifically in relation to attacks against lawyers, journalists and opposition activists which it said were on the rise.

Sam Greene agrees. "The situation with the press hasn't got any better, in fact in some cases it has actually gotten worse," he said. "We've seen more violence against the press. This is not state-sponsored violence but it's part of the current climate and it is part of the responsibility of the state to improve the atmosphere and to make clear that violence against the media will not be tolerated.

"In terms of democracy, there was some talk about reforms to the electoral laws but they've been slow in coming," he added. "We saw municipal elections around the country in which the ruling party continued to dominate, continued to rely on administrative resources and its ability to manipulate the system. We saw this very clearly in the recent mayoral elections In Sochi just like month."

Leadership partners still hugely popular in Russia

Despite these criticisms, neither Medvedev nor Putin has suffered a serious reversal in popularity within the populace. In fact, both retain huge support within Russia.

Putin, left, and Medvedev greet their supporters during a concert to mark presidential election at the Moscow Red Square late Sunday, March 2, 2008.
Medvedev is gaining the kind of star status Putin enjoysImage: AP

"Medvedev enjoys very high ratings but the problem has always been that Russians appear to prefer order to justice," Light said. "Russians are in favor of tough measures if they believe that those tough measures actually make the country more orderly. So the president and Putin still enjoy enormous support from the population."

Sam Greene admits that Medvedev and Putin may have seen a minor dip in popularity but this is mainly due to the current economic crisis, which has seen unemployment in Russia increase and income decrease, and not because of any democratic or liberal failures. But Greene believes that the population doesn't hold the leadership partners responsible for its economic woes.

“The people don't blame Medvedev and Putin for these problems nor do they really expect the government or Medvedev to be able to do much about them," he said. "The people are quite pragmatic, if not cynical, about the Russian government's ability to deal with this crisis."

While Medvedev's polices have been increasingly scrutinized since he came to power, the partnership agreement struck between the president and his prime minister has also come under close inspection during this first year.

Questions remain over who really is the boss

Dmitry Medvedev, left, talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
The partnership has to and will endure, say expertsImage: AP

The state of the two men's relationship has been the subject of intense speculation lately as Medvedev has grown into his role and repeated reports of an imminent split between the two have begun to circulate. But both Sam Greene and Margot Light believe the partnership will endure.

"I think there was a very clear arrangement between the two of them ahead of their presidential election under which it was agreed that they were playing on the same team and playing the same role which was to maintain the outward legitimacy and stability of the political system and to mediate conflict between the various groups in the elite," Greene said. "I wouldn't expect them to work at cross purposes unless there was a real split between the powerful elite in the country. There seems to be a broad consensus that this current system needs to continue so I think the relationship between Medvedev and Putin will remain stable. The only thing that's changed is that Medvedev has become a bit more comfortable in the position, has begun to understand what he can and cannot do and become more confident with his rhetoric and his public persona."

"There have been lots of attempts to find cracks between them," Light added. "I think it's fanciful. I see no cracks between them. If Medvedev was there just to hold the place for Putin until he could run again, the danger was always that Medvedev would like the taste of power and decide he wanted to keep it for himself. I see no sign that this has happened – yet, at any rate.

"However, internationally, Medvedev is still seen very much as an instrument of Putin's policy," Light concluded. "Although he fulfills all the roles the constitution affords to the president, I still think there is a very strong feeling internationally that Putin is making the decisions and Medvedev is simply doing his bidding."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor Chuck Penfold