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“Medvedev is written off by Russian commentators, but they might find they’ve done so too soon”

By Blog Admin, on 14 December 2012

Dmitry Medvedev in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, November 2011-28

Photo: www.kremlin.ru Creative Commons license

Russia’s former President – and current prime minister – Dmitrii Medvedev is sometimes seen as a political puppet of Vladimir Putin. However, as Pete Duncan tells SSEES Research Blog, Medvedev’s role may have been underestimated.

 SSEESResBlog: Medvedev is often seen as a politically weak figure, wholly dependent on Putin. US diplomats privately described him as playing Robin to Putin’s Batman. Why does he deserve a whole chapter in your book on Russian foreign policy?

 PD: As president Medvedev had responsibility for foreign and security policy and Putin specifically gave him that responsibility. Even though Putin was still the most powerful figure in Russia at the time, it’s clear from looking over the four years that Medvedev made his mark on foreign policy. His foreign policy was separate from and different to that of Putin.

 This was partly a matter of style – that’s the most obvious difference – but style can become a matter of substance. And that’s what happened. As soon as Medvedev got the opportunity to change the state of relations, which had got so bad. Already in 2007-8 but then with the war in Georgia, Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

 When Barrack Obama came to power and the new American administration decided, they had to have the reset and Medvedev took full advantage of that. Now Russia and America were on friendly terms again. It’s very hard to see Putin with his KGB and macho background being able to pull that off. Or even getting support from the American side for it.

 SSEESResBlog: The title of your talk mentions interests in Russia foreign policy. Do Russian presidents as individuals make that much of a difference to policy are they expressions of  power networks –  what our colleague Alena Ledeneva terms Russia’s sistema?

 PD: Alena’s absolutely right. Medvedev and Putin come from the same group and that group represents the principal economic interests inside Russia – or at least the political executive committee of those interests. But, of course, there are differences between these groups, differences which came particularly to the fore in the question of accession to the World Trade Organisation, for example. The oligarch Deripaska, for example, as well as being one of the most frequent visitors to Putin when he was president, is – or was – a very strong opponent of Russia joining the WTO

 SSEESResBlog: You also draw a distinction between ideas and interests. To what extent did ideas drive Russian foreign policy?

 PD: Ideas matter very much and, although they are always linked with interests,  they do have a certain autonomy However, Russian foreign policy will never be conducted, whether by Medvedev, Putin or whoever else in the future, against the interests of Russia –  that is Russia in the sense of the Russian elite, the criminal group atop of the Russian state.

 However, ideas about where the interests of that group best lie are very different. Essentially Medvedev saw the main interest of the Russian elite as maintaining good relations with the West, so that Russia would be seen as a reliable customer and so Russians could easily travel in the West, send their children here and so on; whereas Putin emphasises the need for Russia to be leader of the post-Soviet region. His idea of a Eurasian Union – and, in particular, of a Eurasian Economic Union – which came to the fore since last year, is certainly at odds with Medvedev’s vision.

 SSEESResBlog: One final question. Does Medvedev have much of a future in Russian politics? He perhaps seemed to miss his moment by stepping back to allow Putin to resume the presidency this year.

 PD: I don’t think Medvedev had any choice but to step back for Putin. Putin was always the strongest political figure in Russian. Once Putin had decided that he was going to come back, Medvedev – who lacked his own power base in any significant sense – had no choice but to agree.

 And Medvedev is, of course, still prime minister and is very politically active. In fact in some ways he looks more active than Putin at the moment. Putin gives the impression of being rather tired and somewhat frozen, whereas Medvedev still gives the appearance of being dynamic and pushing for modernisation from his post as prime minister.

 People in Russia say that Putin and Medvedev are tired of each other. They’ve worked with each other for so long and there was a power struggle going on, especially in the last year of Medvedev’s presidency. But they need each other: Medvedev can’t do without Putin –Putin’s where the power is; but Putin, similarly, if he sacked Medvedev – which is something I certainly wouldn’t rule out – would still have to find someone to replace him and it’s not obvious where that person would come from.

The reason Putin selected Medvedev in the first place was because of his loyalty. Medvedev – although he has criticised when he felt he was out of line – showed great loyalty to Putin. And he now appears more loyal than anyone else that Putin might choose to replace him. Kudrin is an unknown character: having been minister of finance, he’s gone out and talked to the opposition; Prokhorov is an oligarch who has his own economic interests and already shown that he doesn’t want to be a tool of the presidential administration. So at the moment Putin and Medvedev need each other.

 Medvedev is very much written off by Russian commentators today, but I think they might find in the future that they’ve written him off too soon.

Pete Duncan is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Russian Politics and Society at UCL-SSEES. His research focuses on the relationship between internal change and foreign policy development in Russia. He is currently writing a book on  Russian Foreign Policy from El’tsin to Putin which will be published by Routledge.

A longer discussion of his research on the role of Dmitrii Medvedev was presented at research seminar on 10 December 2012 at the UCL-SSEES Centre for European Politics Security and Integration, and is available as a podcast

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL