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Con: With help from the West, Medvedev can break free of Putin’s grip

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Gene Coyle
May 3, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Is Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev a puppet to Vladimir Putin?

The amateur armchair analysis that incoming Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will simply be at the beck and call of his longtime mentor and soon-to-be prime minister, Vladimir Putin, misses the complicated and nuanced world of Russian politics and history.


There will be no radical departures from Putin’s domestic or foreign policy on the first day in office, but the two have very different backgrounds and different visions for the future.


Putin was a KGB officer, and apparently not even a very good one as his only posting abroad was to East Germany, and longs for a reconstituted U.S.S.R.


Medvedev, the child of university teachers, was only 25 when the Soviet Union collapsed. He studied law and is a man of commerce.


Since the elections, he has spoken of establishing the rule of law, independent judges and changing the mentality of corruption. Perhaps some of that is just for image building in the West, but it’s an encouraging sign and he should be congratulated and encouraged by American leaders.


The question is really what the West can do to help Medvedev come out of Putin’s shadow and pursue his goals.


The average Russian has been a big supporter of Putin because high oil prices have allowed him to make the government function reasonably well and he has restored—at least, in part—Russia’s position as a world power.


Russians traditionally have loved a strong leader, and they found that in Putin. Medvedev will continue Putin’s tough-talking foreign policy because Russians want to be respected as a great nation.


The Bush administration’s “my way or the highway” treatment of Russia as the loser of the Cold War has been the worst possible approach in trying to come to any reasonable compromises. We can bargain hard without treating Russia as a second-rate power.


Russia had its own interests in the world prior to 1917, and it was naive to believe that after 1991 we would always be in agreement on international issues. Our two countries will often be rivals, but there is no reason to be enemies.


Be it Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain, the next U.S. president needs to emphasize our common interests—counterterrorism, nonproliferation, regional stability and trade—not our differences.


Showing Medvedev respect as a fellow world leader is one way to help him have the backing of his people when he eventually has disagreements with Putin over domestic policy.


Russia can survive with Putin and his friends stealing money; it’s bringing the rule of law to the conduct of the other 99 percent of the nation that is crucial in getting Russia on a steady path to civil liberties and democracy, which is in everyone’s long-term interests.


The Russian people are enjoying prosperity and individual freedoms that never existed before in their history. They have no interest in going back to a Soviet-era society, no matter what Putin may dream of recreating.


Let’s take Medvedev at his word for now about the direction he wishes to take his country. Let’s help him establish himself as a successful counterbalance to Putin’s archaic views of what Russia should be and of its relations with America.


We can even give Putin his due for at least stepping down as president per the constitution. He may well plan on continuing to call the shots from behind the curtain, but then so did Emperor Tiberius with his right-hand man Sejanus, and Henry II with Thomas Beckett.


Put someone in position of power and sometimes they come to enjoy it. The old Eagles’ lyric is correct: “They’ll never forget you till somebody new comes along.” It’s in America’s interest to help the Russian people back Medvedev, the new kid in town.


Gene Coyle was a Russian specialist with the CIA for 30 years and now teaches at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Readers may write to him at SPEA, Ballentine Hall 502, Bloomington, Ind. 47405.

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