Medvedev the Phony
The Russian political circus has extended its tour. Four years ago, Dmitry Medvedev was chosen to keep warm the seat of Vladimir Putin, and now as Putin returns to the presidency, Medvedev will assume the post of prime minister. This job swap, announced last September, might have been accepted by most Russians without a murmur several years ago, but Russia has changed dramatically since then. The swap instead has deepened resentment among many in the country, who view it as a slap in the face. In December, hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets against the rigged election, which in their eyes made Putin's presidency illegitimate.
But where does this leave Medvedev? "Who?" some might ask dismissively. "Putin's puppet?" others might sneer. To many Russians, the outgoing president is viewed as a nonentity whose primary concrete legacy will be the absurd reduction of Russia's time zones from 11 to 9. During his putative presidency, the Russian system displayed unmistakable signs of decay, demonstrated by the growing role of repressive organs and their criminalization, the fusion of power with property, and the ruling elites' attempts to pass their wealth and positions to their families and friends. Medvedev would often utter liberal-sounding ideas -- his anodyne comment that "freedom is better than non-freedom" caused quite a flutter of excitement, briefly -- but the follow-through on his proposals was never there. He had the power only to speak, not act. The more he tried to be taken seriously, the more comical and pathetic he looked. Often, Putin would be caught by cameras looking at his protégé with condescending amusement.
Why, then, would Putin keep Medvedev on as prime minister? Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, or nearly any other high-level official, would arguably be a more effective choice. But effectiveness isn't Putin's goal. Instead, his criteria are based on loyalty, keeping a corrupt architecture intact, and eliminating potential threats. This is how the personalized system in Russia works: By stepping aside and not running for reelection, Medvedev has demonstrated his loyalty to Putin, and in turn, Putin has shown that he rewards loyalty. The only silver lining of Putin's return to power may be how it reveals Medvedev's supposedly reformist presidency for the farce it really was.
Here is Medvedev's legacy in one sentence: He enabled Putin's personalized rule to continue unabated.
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