The Kremlin Two Step

Moscow – Westerners often see Russian politics in terms of a high-level struggle between liberals and conservatives: Ligachev and Yakovlev under Gorbachev; reformers and nationalists under Yeltsin; siloviki and economic liberals under Putin. They also view Russia in terms of a tradition whereby every new tsar partly repudiates the legacy of his predecessor, creating a political thaw at the beginning of a new reign. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization is Exhibit A.

Both methods were used to describe the Putin-Medvedev relationship – to understand its nature and dynamic, and what it portends for Russia. But observers remain puzzled.

To dismiss Medvedev as a mere Putin puppet, a constitutional bridge between Putin’s second and third presidential terms, would be both unfair and wrong. Russia’s third president has a broader role and a distinct function. Conversely, portraying Putin as “a man from the past,” and Medvedev as “a hope for the future,” exaggerates the differences between them and omits the more important factors that unite them. A better analytical model is needed.

For all the apparent freshness of Medvedev’s recent pronouncements, including his now famous article “Go Russia!” – which sounded a clarion call for modernization and liberalism – he is borrowing massively from Putin’s vocabulary of 2000. This suggests that the issue of modernization, which lay dormant throughout the fat years of high oil prices, is back on the Kremlin agenda.