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Pro: Medvedev is dangling from Putin’s string now; restoring the rule of law might set him free

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

Is Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev merely a Pinocchio craftily manipulated by Vladimir Putin’s Geppetto?


Of course he is—at least for now. As there are no free elections in Russia today, President Putin simply selected his heir. He would not have chosen Medvedev as his “successor” if he did not believe his young protege would be utterly loyal.


Putin closely supervised Medvedev for almost 20 years and refers to him as his “son.” He installed him as chairman of Russia’s largest energy conglomerate Gazprom; gave him the positions of chief of staff and first deputy prime minister; and has carefully groomed him as successor.


Medvedev accepted the presidency with the understanding that Putin would be prime minister. For all we know, there may be other parts of the deal not released for public consumption. Perhaps Medvedev will step down if asked, so that Putin can assume the presidency—as the Constitution requires.


Does Medvedev dance in mid-air when Putin pulls the strings? You can bet the collective farm on it.


Are there other puppeteers besides the wily Putin, or is he the all-powerful Tsar that Western journalists and analysts paint him to be? Here the answer is a loud “nyet.”


While Russia has prospered since President Boris Yeltsin anointed Putin successor in 1999, Putin has never been omnipotent. He needed to launch a brutal war against Chechen separatists to marshal the patriotic fervor that ensured his election victory in 2000.


For many years, he was beholden to Yeltsin and his entourage, giving the ex-president immunity from any criminal prosecution despite ample evidence of corruption. He shared the spoils of power with many of Yeltsin’s favorite oligarchs and tolerated Yeltsin’s advisers in key Kremlin positions. Putin himself played the puppet to Yeltsin’s inner circle for many years.


Over time, however, President Putin has established a formidable power base—leveraging his growing control of Russia’s prosperous oil exports as well as insiders in the KGB, the still dreaded state security agency where Putin got his start.


Ex-KGB men, and others from the so-called “power ministries,” now run Russia’s most important strategic enterprises and agencies—usually from posts bestowed by Putin.


And Putin must rely on Medvedev to keep the KGB and the other power ministries happy—or at least, stay out of the way while Putin caters to their demands.


As much as Medvedev promises continuity, he also signals potential change. Unlike President Putin, he is not a product of the KGB; in fact, he is a former law professor and the son of an academic family. In statements so far, he has attacked Russia’s “legal nihilism” and lauded its nascent civil society.


When President-elect Medvedev takes office May 7, he has an opportunity to show his commitment to the rule of law and civil society with deeds, not words.


His first step should be to free the political prisoners now jailed in Russia for no reason other than peaceful opposition to the government.


Medvedev also should lift burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on domestic and international NGOs—non-governmental organizations and grant them permission to monitor conditions in Russian penal colonies where torture has found haven.


In addition, he should open serious investigations into the many contract killings of journalists and politicians that have gone unsolved for years.


And he should drop the new, politically motivated charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former owner of Russia’s largest oil company, who has already served several years in a Siberian prison camp. In countless ways, Medvedev should signal a real commitment to law and civil society.


President Medvedev will never have the base in the “power ministries” that President Putin does. But he has the opportunity to establish a power base even stronger—one based on respect for law and moral courage.


Mary S. Holland directs the Graduate Legal Skills Program at New York University Law School (http://www.law.nyu.edu/). Readers may write her at NYU Law School, 245 Sullivan St., C12, New York, N.Y. 10012.

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