Dmitri Medvedev’s election to the Russian presidency with 70 percent of the vote was as lopsided as it was pre-arranged. It seems clear that he will govern in concert with a United Russia Duma majority under a very popular Putin ministry. The one conventional view of this election that has been accurate is that the result represents the continuation of Putinism, Russia’s populist authoritarian nationalist regime organized around the security services and the state-owned oil companies.
Many Western observers see only one-party rule and the emergence of an antagonistic, anti-Western Russian state, but there is now an opportunity for Washington to begin repairing relations frayed by years of our provocation and neglect. Recognizing that Russian politics cannot be understood through clumsy labels like “pro-Western” and “neo-Soviet” is vital, and Medvedev offers a perfect case for why we must move beyond these pejorative and meaningless categories.
Before being anointed as Putin’s successor, Medvedev was an old St. Petersburg crony. He served as the Russian president’s chief of staff and deputy prime minister. Since 2002, he has also been chairman of the state-run oil and gas firm, Gazprom, one of the nation’s main sources of revenue and a key element of its economic leverage over other European states that depend on Russian energy. The West can expect a continuation of Putin’s policy of encouraging foreign investment and exploiting high energy prices to wield influence through Russian energy exports.
Trained as a lawyer and lacking the personal ties to Russia’s secret services that so defined Putin’s career, Medvedev has shown an interest in strengthening property rights and has expressed dissatisfaction with the limits of the rule of law. “Russia is the country of legal nihilism,” he declared in January. As part of the rising generation of Russian leaders, Medvedev, 42, seems to have little preoccupation with Soviet nostalgia. Everything in his record to date indicates that he represents the reformist elements of Putinism, but this will not preclude his continuation of the authoritarian tendencies of his predecessor.
Any smart reworking of America’s Russia policy will require the next administration not to expect political or legal reforms in the near future, and Washington should not invest Medvedev with the aura of the embattled liberal reformer. In Russia’s present political climate, nothing could be more fatal to the success of reform than the West’s public embrace. If change is going to come about at all, it will stem from the authoritarian nationalist system that Putin has consolidated, and it will be justified in terms palatable to a nationalist majority that has become wary of projects associated too closely with foreigners.
Fueled by energy revenues and investment, Russia’s resurgence in international affairs will continue. One of the first major events in Medvedev’s presidency is the civil strife over elections in Armenia, Russia’s main ally in the Caucasus and a state that is heavily dependent on Russian energy and imports. While it is unlikely that Western media and governments will slavishly endorse the protests of the challenger against the incumbent as they have done in contests in Georgia and Ukraine, there may be a temptation in Washington and Brussels to use unrest in Armenia to embarrass the Russians. This would be a mistake. Rather than replaying the damaging fight over the dubious “Orange Revolution,” the strife in Armenia offers a chance to avoid intervention in Russia’s near-abroad and thus avert a new provocation early in Medvedev’s tenure.
The greatest myth that has been woven around the Medvedev victory is that it represents some kind of political uncertainty, as the inveterately anti-Russian editorialists at The Economist claim, when there has really been less uncertainty about Medvedev’s rise to power than there has been for any new head of state in recent history. Indeed, Medvedev’s policies are more likely to match his campaign rhetoric than if he were leader of a competitive multiparty democracy. Russian policies, like the election results, are driven by highly predictable state interests. Putin’s position as prime minister, Medvedev’s avowed support for Putin’s policies, and the structures of the modern Russian state all indicate with a high degree of certainty what can be expected from Moscow in the next four to eight years.
Despite the gross error of recognizing Kosovo last month, the Bush administration can still close out its second term with some constructive engagement with a reviving power that has many common security interests. Secretary Rice can improve on her very belated retreat toward realism and make better use of her reported Russian expertise. Russia under Medvedev presents a perfect case for engaging in foreign policy based on national interests, rather than swatting at phantoms of a conflict that ended almost 20 years ago.