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Russia's future still a mystery under new president Dmitry Medvedev

Sunday, May 11, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:55 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at globaljournalist.org.

Loory: With pomp and ceremony, recalling both the days of imperial Russia and the Communist autocracy of the Soviet Union, the presidency changed hands in the Kremlin last week. But did power also transfer from the former president, Vladimir Putin, to the new president, Dmitry Medvedev? One of Medvedev’s first acts was to appoint his former boss and mentor, Putin, as prime minister. But Medvedev took the oath of office with his hand resting on the Constitution of the Russian Federation. That document gives the president supreme powers, powers that Medvedev may want to keep for himself. In his inaugural address, Medvedev pledged to strengthen rule of law in Russia. But that will be one of his big problems. Others will include bringing corruption under control, rebuilding Russia’s industrial base, improving relations with the former republics of the former Soviet Union and with the Western world and restoring some measure of individual and press freedom. Is this 42-year-old lawyer from St. Petersburg, who has never held an elective office, up to it? And will he be allowed to do it? With the Parliament confirming Putin’s appointment as prime minister, Russia officially has a two-headed government. How will that work out?

Nabi Abdullaev, senior staff writer, The Moscow Times, Moscow: It isn’t a two-headed government. Russia has a president who enjoys broad powers, and it has Putin, whose powers are restricted mostly to domestic policies and issues. Putin has been the most popular politician in Russia, and the most influential. It’s a big thing when a new person becomes president, but frankly there is no feeling of a big change among the Russian people. If Medvedev and Putin change things, they will do it so smoothly and gradually that it’s hard to see whether Medvedev’s Russia will exist at all.

Loory: Will Putin peacefully surrender the power he’s held for eight years?

Matthew Chance, CNN Russia bureau chief, Moscow: Putin has gone to considerable lengths to ensure he has a power base to maintain some authority in Russia. Medvedev has said repeatedly that Putin will play a key role as prime minister. They will work in tandem. That’s the catchphrase they’re using. Putin, as a popular figure, is clearly going to be the guy who makes the final decision on some issues. But who knows what the presidency will do to Medvedev’s personality? He has always been Putin’s subordinate, but now he has this constitutional power invested in him. Perhaps we will see him emerging as his own man, his own president.

Loory: Will Medvedev be more willing to work out a peaceful settlement between Russia and Georgia?

Giorgi Lomsadze, freelance reporter, EurasiaNet, Tbilisi, Georgia: During Putin’s term, imports from Georgia were banned, and Georgian citizens were escorted from Russia. Now there are reasons to believe Putin will be the de facto head of government, so Georgia will have to deal with Russia again. Relations won’t improve as long as Putin stays in charge, but Russian politics could change. The people who installed Putin thought he could be an easily manipulated figurehead, but it didn’t work out that way. If similar things happen with Medvedev, then relations between Russia and Georgia may change for the better.

Loory: How does the Bush administration view Medvedev?

Warren Strobel, foreign affairs correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers, Washington, D.C.: Under Bush, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been a bit of a roller coaster. Early on, Bush tried to engage Putin. He saw Russia as a partner. That was followed by a period of bitterness and backlash because of the backsliding of democracy in Russia. In the last six months, there has been an effort to put things back on stable footing. The sense in Washington is Medvedev is a guy we can do business with. But the administration will try to find out whether Medvedev has any real power.

Loory: Will Medvedev have enough power to do the job of the president the way it is structured in the Russian constitution?

Chance: The real question is whether Medvedev wants to exercise that kind of power. He has it constitutionally, but he’s Putin’s man. Putin hand-picked him for this job because they share the same opinions on many issues. Even though Medvedev has made liberal pronouncements about protecting the rule of law and bolstering human rights and freedoms, he has been central to the Putin administration under which those rights and freedoms have been systematically undermined. No one knows whether his words are heartfelt opinions or if he just is talking the talk, as Putin did when he came to power.

Loory: Will the NATO alliance continue pushing east via Ukraine and Georgia, or will it go easy on Russia to see how things develop?

Strobel: At a recent NATO summit in Bucharest, the Bush administration pushed hard to get a road map to get Georgia into NATO over time, and it was blocked. Other NATO countries feel that pushing NATO into former Soviet countries is not the thing to do, so NATO expansion is not going to move ahead at any fast clip.

Loory: Will that be satisfactory in Georgia?

Lomsadze: Georgia banked on NATO membership and was looking forward to getting started on it. When it was denied, authorities viewed that as Russia taking a free hand against Georgia. They feel that Russia can act single-handedly towards the breakaway regions and the Western countries will only do so much to prevent that. Even though the U.S. and Georgia have been friends since the Soviet Union broke up, Georgia isn’t worth straining U.S. relations with Russia by confronting Russia.

Loory: Is Russia becoming more accommodating concerning U.S. construction of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe?

Chance: There is strong opposition to missiles being deployed close to Russia’s border. It got out of control when people were talking about a new Cold War developing. But both sides have attempted to tone rhetoric down, and that might be one of the things Medvedev is successful at. Medvedev isn’t a tough guy like Putin. He is a soft-mannered individual, and we may see a more conciliatory point of view in his dealings with the West, but we won’t see any reversals of Russia’s big positions.

Loory: The United Russia party sounds like the old Communist Party, with much power going to Putin as the party leader and the prime minister. Is that what’s happening?

Abdullaev: United Russia isn’t a party that strongly depends on the public, like the Communist Party. It is a party of bureaucrats who change their will quickly. Putin is trying to get additional leverage to balance his power with Medvedev, but United Russia is hardly a strong lever in that sense.

Chance: If it comes to a confrontation between Medvedev and Putin, the president of Russia ultimately has the power to push through his will. Putin is shoring up his position, but it’s not a guarantee he would win in a head-on-head clash with Medvedev.

Loory: As Winston Churchill said of Russia in 1939, it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Churchill could not figure Russia out, and almost 70 years later that is still the case.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.


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