Medvedev speech: nod or challenge to Putin's upper hand?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed a Putin-Medvedev face-off in 2012. He may be trying to establish his place as a liberal voice in a Putin-led system.

Alexander Nemenov/AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during an awarding ceremony at the Gorki Presidential residence, outside Moscow on Monday, June 20.

Political competition is always a good thing, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Monday, but the much-discussed idea of an open presidential face off between himself and his powerful predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, would be bad for the country.

Mr. Medvedev's comments, made in an extensive interview with Britain's Financial Times newspaper just days after challenging the state-led system built by Mr. Putin at an international economics forum, has many observers scratching their heads about his intentions.

"I think that any leader who occupies such a post as president, simply must want to run," Medvedev said. But, he added, "the people must provide an answer to this one. They define whether they want to see this person or not and, as an acting politician, I will be guided by that in taking my decision. I think that we will have not very long to wait and I think that the decision will be correct, both for the rest of the federation and myself."

Analysts say it's difficult to see how "the people" could give such a signal in Russia's top-down and heavily controlled political system.

"Between the lines, it's clear Medvedev is saying that Putin will decide," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, an independent Moscow think tank. "He keeps being asked this question, about whether he will run, and tries to find ways of talking about it without providing an answer. The fact that he can't say 'yes' or 'no' at this point means the decision almost certainly depends on somebody else."

Putin, who leads the ruling United Russia party, increasingly looks to be running for a six-year presidential term in polls slated for next March, though he's made no explicit announcement.

But he might already be able to claim that the people have given him a sign. Last month, Putin announced the creation of a popular front whose main purpose appears to be backing Putin's renewed bid for national leadership. According to the front's website, thousands of individuals and 500 public organizations have joined up by last week.

Medvedev has consistently sounded far more liberal than Putin on economic and political issues. Many people see Medvedev's speech last Friday to the St. Petersburg economic forum as a liberal election manifesto to challenge the conservative "stability first" approach championed by Putin.

"If you want to see an election platform there, you can," says Mr. Mukhin. "If you want to see it as just another Medvedev speech, in which he raises the banner of liberalism, you can do that too.... My own view is that Medvedev is trying to establish his place – perhaps as the liberal voice – in a Putin-run system, not trying to challenge that system."

In his St. Petersburg speech Medvedev explicitly attacked the state-led model of economic development introduced by Putin. "The result is state-controlled companies dominating many sectors, low levels of entrepreneurial and investment activity in these sectors, and ultimately, the threat that Russia’s economy will become less competitive in general. This economic model jeopardizes the country’s future. It is not my choice," Medvedev said.

As he has in the past, Medvedev suggested that Russia needs top-to-bottom "modernization" to turn it into a 21st-century economic powerhouse. Among other things, he called for accelerated privatization of key state assets, decentralization of political power, judicial reform, crackdown on corruption, and visa-free travel between Russia and Europe.

But when asked by the Financial Times whether he would consider running against Putin in an open electoral contest that would enable the Russian people to choose between his vision and his predecessor's, Medvedev's answer was clearly no.

"It is hard to imagine," he said. "The thing is that Vladimir Putin and myself – and Vladimir Putin is my colleague and an old friend – we represent, to a large extent, one and the same political force. And therefore, competition between us may be detrimental to those tasks and goals that we’ve been pursuing in recent years. Therefore, I think this would not be the best scenario for our country and for this specific situation."

Some analysts say they're growing weary of what looks like a stage-managed political spectacle aimed at creating the impression of public choice between Medvedev and Putin, while the actual decision will be made behind closed Kremlin doors on a timetable of Putin's choosing.

"After three years of a Medvedev presidency, we see no real changes in this country," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant, noting that Medvedev's frequent bursts of rhetorical reformism are seldom translated into action.

"If Medvedev had real political ambitions of his own, he should have expressed them openly, honestly, and assertively by now. But what we see is a polite gentleman, who smiles and gives good speeches, which are mainly meant for consumption in the West," he says.

"It's beginning to look like he only makes these speeches to save his own face. If he's on his way out, I guess he'd rather go looking like a reformer than like a puppet."

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