LONDON – In 2001, George W. Bush claimed that he had looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and found a soulmate for the West. Putin then proceeded to restore authoritarian rule in Russia. Today, Western leaders may well be about to repeat the same mistake with Dmitry Medvedev.
Sunday’s election was a coronation rather than a competition. Medvedev’s only opponents were has-beens from the 1990’s like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who long ago converted himself from proto-fascist into a Kremlin loyalist, and Andrey Bogdanov, an ersatz “democrat” permitted to run by the Kremlin in order to dupe the West into thinking that a real contest was taking place.
It is therefore surprising that Medvedev should be hailed by so many in the West as a “liberal.” Is this just because we have been maneuvered into fearing someone worse, a sabre-rattling silovik (past or present member of the security services), like former Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov? Or does Medvedev represent a genuine opportunity to unfreeze the current mini-Cold War between Russia and the West?
Medvedev is indeed personable. Putin’s background was in the KGB, while Medvedev is a lawyer who has attacked Russia’s “legal nihilism” and denounced the fashionable concept of “sovereign democracy.” Medvedev is familiar to the business world after seven years as Chairman of the Board of Gazprom. He can talk the talk at Davos. He wears nice suits. He does not look like an archetypal post-Soviet bureaucrat or KGB agent. He is a big fan of 1970’s rockers Deep Purple.