Medvedev Trying to Carve Out New Role as President to Help Modernize Nation

Stephen Sestanovich, CFR’s top Russia expert, says that after two months as Russia’s new president, Dmitri Medvedev "has not replaced Putin as president. He’s only assumed the title."

July 2, 2008

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Stephen Sestanovich, CFR senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies and a former ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet states, says that Russia’s new president, Dmitri Medvedev, " has not replaced Putin as president. He’s only assumed the title." But he says that Medvedev, who has a milder demeanor than Putin, has been spending considerable time trying to deemphasize Europe’s ties with the United States, and instead to substitute a "troika" of Russia-EU-U.S. cooperation. He has also stressed the need to rid Russia of economic and political corruption but it is unclear whether this will bear much fruit.

Dmitri Medvedev, the new Russian president, has been in office now for just short of two months. What’s your overall impression of his policies and demeanor?

For anyone who wondered whether former President Vladimir Putin [now the prime minister] would be able to transfer his own popularity to someone else, that question has pretty much been put to rest. Medvedev’s approval ratings, while in the low to mid 70s, are pretty respectable. They are not as high as Putin’s own as prime minister—those are in the low to mid 80s. Now, the question is: approval in what role? And that’s still a little bit unclear. It seems that Medvedev has not replaced Putin as president. He’s only assumed the title. Even Russians who believe that he will, before long—meaning in the next couple of years in the course of his first term—take on a true presidential role, don’t expect him to be in conflict with Putin now or for the foreseeable future. That forecast has certainly been borne out. Medvedev has given no sign of conflict with Putin. But he has tried to carve out for himself an interesting new role as the spokesman for some of the business that Russia needs to attend to [in order] to complete its modernization.

Such as what?

Domestically, the signature issue is corruption. He made a point of talking about corruption as a major weakness in Russia’s system when he was a candidate, and he’s continued to do so as president.

This is corruption in terms of political people stashing away money for themselves, or politically, rigging court cases and in other ways defying the law?

He means it broadly. The focus has been on abuse of power by state officials and on the manipulation of the judicial system. And he is scheduled to give a speech this week on government corruption. He has received recommendations from a council that he created after becoming president—the anti-corruption council. He says corruption is the number-two problem in the country, after poverty. And he defines it in an interesting way. He says it’s a problem created by excessive state power. His solution isn’t just the strengthening of the police or the regulators. It’s addressing the institutional reformation of the Russian system and trying to limit the state authority that makes corruption possible.

He made a point of talking about corruption as a major weakness in Russia’s system when he was a candidate, and he’s continued to do so as president.

Now, on this issue, most Russians are pretty skeptical that there will be any near-term progress. Putin periodically talked about corruption too, even if in a slightly different way from Medvedev. But not much happened, except to have corruption increase. Will Medvedev be able to do anything differently? I have to see what he says in his speech. We’ll have to see what kind of follow-through there is. But I would say there is a much stronger commitment to solving the problem, at least at a declaratory level. And it goes beyond just Medvedev himself. Vladislav Surkov, who is always described as principal ideologist and political strategist of the Putin-Medvedev team, who has continued to work for Putin, has issued regular warnings to the members of the Russian elite, saying: "We can’t have a system in which you expect to have a lifetime in power." He means there has to be some kind of alternation of power, a circulation of elites, and more pluralism. Now, that may be in the distance. What’s interesting is how much Medvedev talks about it.

When Putin was president, he had a whole apparatus of former KGB people working on his team or who held big positions in industry. What’s happened to these people? Are they still there?

They’re still enjoying their "lifetime in power," as Surkov would put it. Many of them have migrated to the prime minister’s office. One of the measures of Putin’s continued importance is the enlargement of the prime minister’s staff and even of its statutory responsibilities. Putin is in no way the kind of prime minister that he had when he was president. He’s very activist. He is, as one of our political leaders would put it, clearly the Decider.

What other issues are on Medvedev’s agenda right now, particularly as he plans for his first G8 meeting next week in Japan?

Lately he has emphasized the modernization of Russia’s international role. And he’s done this in a number of speeches and meetings. He gave a speech in Berlin on Russia’s relations with Europe. He gave a big speech to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum about Russia’s role in the world economy.

These are the speeches where he paraphrased John le Carré’s title: "Russia’s come in from the cold"? [Le Carre wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold]

Exactly. Showing himself to be a man of varied literary tastes. In the Germany speech, there was the obligatory Schiller quote too. But what’s interesting about these speeches is how conciliatory they are in tone, and ambitious in content. The Berlin speech is, in a way, equivalent to Putin’s famous Munich speech of February 2007 which was all sharp elbows and hostility. And, by contrast, Medvedev’s speech was perfectly calibrated to the preference of European leaders for bland and visionary talk with a lot of substance. He is just as determined as Putin, at least in these speeches, to carve out a new role for Russia.

And what is this new role he’s trying to carve out?

It’s captured in a number of the slogans of the speech. He says, "Atlanticism has had its day," meaning that the defining relationship in European affairs is not the one between the United States and Europe. He talks about a new troika, in which Europe, the United States, and Russia, as three roughly coequal partners, set the agenda for European security and economic issues. And he’s made some specific proposals, like a European summit for the drafting of a treaty on European security.

This would be without the United States invited?

No, with the United States being invited. But, he makes clear, without bloc politics, meaning somehow that NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is to be marginalized or neutralized. These ideas have been received with some uncertainty on the part of Europeans. And at the Russia-EU summit this past week in Siberia, when Javier Solana [the EU’s foreign minister] was asked about this proposal, he gave a typical noncommittal answer. He said, "Initiatives in this area are very welcome." But, that’s only because they haven’t figured out exactly what they want to say and what the Russians mean by these proposals. There’s no doubt we’re going to hear more along these lines. This is going to be one of the defining features of Russian foreign policy going forward. And Medvedev has associated himself with it, and has suggested that he may be able to handle this a bit better than Putin did. He presents himself as somebody totally committed to the rule of law. He has a little bit more of a European demeanor in his approach to dealings with the EU. And that gives him an advantage in pushing what is still a pretty ambitious agenda.

Putin is in no way the kind of prime minister that he had when he was president. He’s very activist. He is, as one of our political leaders would put it, clearly the Decider.

Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, has translated some of Medvedev’s lofty talk into specifics. He said Russia wants to pause on several NATO policies that give us the most heartburn: ballistic missile defense, NATO enlargement, Kosovo independence. But Medvedev’s ambitions may even go beyond that "pause." They get to European architecture. He wants to define a framework for European security [in] which Russia has a guaranteed seat at the table.

It’s hard to imagine European security without Russia at the table, isn’t it?

Of course. But the question is: What’s the role of NATO? What’s the relationship between Russia and the EU and the United States? Is it a tripartite relationship, or is it Europe and the United States working together to manage the integration of Russia? Those are two different images. Russians are saying, "We don’t like to be the odd man out."

What about Medvedev’s view of the world economy?

He talks a lot about Russia’s role in the international economy, clearly enjoying the fact that Russia is now seen by many businesses, investors, and economists as an island of stability. He really hopes to enlarge and institutionalize its role. And so, when he speaks to gatherings of international businessmen, as he did in St. Petersburg, he talks about making the ruble a leading regional reserve currency. He talks about the failures of the United States to create a viable economic regulatory structure, and that a modern one needs a larger role for Russia. Here, too, he’s got some important trends on his side. Russia-EU trade has tripled in the past six or seven years. He’s got many Europeans seeing Russia as their most valuable new trading partner. And when he says Russia needs a seat at the table, he gets a respectful audience. He’s said that defining the rules of the road for international investment is a high priority, meaning that Russia wants to be able to invest in European energy infrastructure. And he hasn’t gotten shot down. In fact, the Europeans have agreed now to go forward with negotiating a new partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia, and it’s clear that the energy relationship is going to be a prime topic of this negotiations.

Has he had any real dealings with the United States, yet?

He hasn’t, really. He’s had a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at which there was a lot of mutual sniffing going on to see what kind of person the United States is going to be dealing with.

And then of course, there was the meeting in April at Sochi, between Bush and Putin, their farewell meeting as presidents, in which Bush met also with Medvedev. That was in the transition between his election and his inauguration. But this meeting with Bush at the G8 will be the first between the two with Medvedev as president.

 

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