Medvedev's legacy in Russia: small victories in Putin's shadows

Despite making little headway on corruption or human rights, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev did change Russia. 'The ice began to melt and Putin won't be able to refreeze it,' said one expert.

By , Correspondent

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    President Dmitry Medvedev listens during a live television interview in Moscow on Thursday, April 26, 2012.
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Sergei Mokhnatkin walked out of a grim provincial prison a free man Wednesday, five days after outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree ordering his release. Mr. Mokhnatkin had been arrested two years ago for trying to intercede with a police officer who was allegedly roughing up an elderly protester at an unsanctioned opposition rally.

Human rights activists say that, while they are overjoyed for Mokhnatkin, this may be as good a summary as any for the disappointing achievements of Mr. Medvedev's presidency, which formally ends on May 7. Vladimir Putin will then be inaugurated for his third term as president of Russia.

Though Medvedev repeatedly promised democratic reforms, and often made a strong public show of disagreeing with Mr. Putin on human rights issues, in the end Mokhnatkin was the only alleged political prisoner to be pardoned in Medvedev's constitutionally mandated right to declare amnesty. Human rights organizations had submitted to him a list of more than 30 people in prison for political reasons.

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"Mokhnatkin was due to be released in June anyhow. He already served most of his term, and he went through all that because he made some remark to a policeman," says Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, a public organization. Mokhnatkin was a completely uninvolved passerby near the rally, says Mr. Ponomaryov.  "We considered him a political prisoner. But we gave a long list of names to the president for his consideration, and Mokhnatkin was the only one chosen. Take your pick, it's either indecent or ridiculous."

No defining accomplishment?

Medvedev, who gave his final interview as president to a group of journalists today, suggested that civil rights and personal freedoms have expanded since he came to office four years ago. "Freedom is a unique concept that everyone interprets differently," he said. "Let's ask people [who took part in opposition demonstrations] in the streets if they feel freedom."

Following Putin's inauguration next month, Medvedev is set to become prime minister, the position Putin nominally held for the past four years. Last September Putin and Medvedev publicly admitted that they'd agreed years ago to switch jobs – a maneuver Russian analysts describe with the chess term "castling."

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But four years after coming to power as Putin's handpicked successor, experts say they are at a loss to find any defining accomplishment of Medvedev's term in the Kremlin.

"We've come to understand that it doesn't matter what Medvedev says. He's clearly not an independent political personage," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "His political future depends on the continuation of the Putin system, of which he is a dependent and obedient part.... We just watched his last interview as president, and it was just as awkward and unconvincing as the whole four years of his presidency."

Sochi Olympics: $30 billion price tag shows growing cost of corruption

Medvedev himself admitted today that his signature campaign – war on corruption – has delivered little.

"It would be a massive exaggeration to say that nothing is being done," he said. "But if we are talking of results, then they are, of course, modest."

Russia improved its standing on the Berlin-based Transparency International's corruption perception index, rising from 154th in 2010 to 143rd the next year. But many experts argue that while the frequency of bribery and graft has fallen during Medvedev's tenure, the overall cost of corruption has grown markedly.

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now a key opposition leader, says the sheer cost of major projects betrays vast amounts of corruption built into them, and that those costs are rising.

"The price tag for construction of the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics has exploded, and it's likely to come to around $35 billion," says Mr. Nemtsov. "That's many times more than any Olympics has ever cost before. The costs of preparing for the Vladivostock APEC Summit has soared to around $20 billion." The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is to be held next November in Russia's far east.

Official sources agree that total costs for Sochi will exceed $30 billion, which would make it at least four times higher than total costs for the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010.

One of the signal corruption cases of the Medvedev era was that of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing lawyer who died in prison after testifying about a massive scam by top police and tax officials to steal $230 million from the state treasury.      

Medvedev was presented with a full report by the Kremlin's in-house human rights commission in July 2011, which detailed the illegal arrest, prison abuse, and brutal death of Mr. Magnitsky in custody. At the time, Medvedev admitted that "crimes" had taken place, leading to Magnitsky's death.

Yet almost nothing was done, and last week charges were dropped for one of two prison doctors accused of neglecting Magnitsky's care, who had been the only people to be held accountable in any way for the death.

A 'new atmosphere' thanks to Medvedev

Liberals, democracy activists, and human rights monitors have complained repeatedly that Medvedev's promises of reform rarely seem to materialize. Particularly galling for many was his failure, despite strong pledges, to press investigators to move forward on the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya or to solve any of the almost 20 cases of journalists' murders and severe beatings that are still on the books.

But some experts say that Medvedev is being judged too harshly, and that the still-vague democratic reforms he initiated after massive public protests against electoral fraud exploded in December may yet salvage his reputation.

And at least one man, Sergei Mokhnatkin, is thanking him. "I can't believe I'm free," he told waiting friends outside the prison gate yesterday.

"Yes, it's very easy to blame Medvedev, because he looks so naive, so helpless, so dependent," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. "Yes, he talked more than he acted, promised more than he ever delivered. But the climate of the country changed during Medvedev's presidency. My colleagues and I have felt a real breath of openness, more freedom of expression. Medvedev talked differently, he introduced a new atmosphere, and as a result the country changed.

"The ice began to melt, and Putin won't be able to refreeze it. Medvedev set some landmarks, and it's up to society to follow them."

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