What happened to Dmitry Medvedev?

In recent months, former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been surprising his social media audience with sharp comments that are more reminiscent of the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky than Medvedev himself. Medvedev’s posts have sparked much speculation. Prosaic theories say Medvedev is “drinking”, while others say he is trying to maintain political relevance in the new conditions. Others argue that he wants to use his sharp rhetoric to return to the presidency as Putin’s successor.

Of course, we don’t know Medvedev’s real motivation; only he knows that. His career has rather stagnated in recent years.

In 2020, he was dismissed as prime minister of the federal government, and there was talk that the reason for the replacement was the continued economic stagnation and the slow implementation of so-called national projects. This is, of course, quite paradoxical from today’s perspective – given that February 24 completely redrew all plans for Russia’s economic development, including the national projects that were supposed to be the flagship of Putin’s current presidency. Instead, Russia is facing an unprecedented economic emergence, the results of which, i.e. where it will actually lead, are very uncertain.

But this is not the first time in Russian history where geopolitics and ambitions have been prioritized over economy and wellbeing. It also seems that the emergent nature of Putin’s regime is one of its core power mechanisms by which it resembles governance by shock therapy.

But Medvedev has retained influence beyond 2020 through two roles: first, as vice-chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, which meets several times a month to address major foreign policy and security issues, and second, as chairman of the ruling United Russia party which gives him an important institutional muscle.

Rise of a Russian Liberal

But Medvedev may have other motives: his new image may be a defence mechanism within a political system that is now undergoing another transformation in Russia. The war in Ukraine has opened the door to a Cold War mentality and has also given room for siloviki, members of the security apparatus. It is not just that the siloviki seem to have gained influence in the Kremlin when Putin agreed to the invasion. It’s that it also strengthens their domestic roles given all the collateral consequences of the war. Meanwhile, Medvedev is not and never has been a silovik, and it cannot be argued that he is popular among them. Rather the opposite, given that some consider the simplest definition of a Russian liberal to be in opposition to the siloviki and their interventions in the running of the state.

For quite a long time, Medvedev has just defined himself as a liberal of this Russian ilk, while the Russian regime increasingly assumes a conservative and repressive (siloviki-dependent) mask. The space for other views and perspectives has become very narrow even compared to the past.

When Medvedev became president of Russia, it was the result of a very unique political reshuffle implemented by Vladimir Putin. As a result, there emerged several contradictions: on the one hand, Putin showed great respect for the constitutional order and rules, but on the other hand, he skilfully retained political power. He achieved this in three ways: through the post of prime minister, by joining the ruling United Russia party as its chairman and, finally, by betting on the loyal Medvedev.

Putin and Medvedev in 2008.

On the one hand, the emergence of the so-called tandemocracy was unique because Putin was the first Russian politician to move from the highest office to a subordinate position. The Russian constitution makes it clear that the president has a stronger role, while the prime minister has weaker powers, especially with regard to foreign and security policy.

However, tandemocracy also meant a paradoxical arrangement in which Putin had political support (recall that in 2007 many Russians wanted him to remain as president regardless of the constitution), while Medvedev, in turn, had constitutionally-given power, which was bound to cause tensions. In effect, a two-leader personnel system emerged in Russia. In the realm of informal politics or “grey politics”, the rise of Medvedev has managed to maintain a balance between factions of the elite, including the siloviki factions. Medvedev was not a man of any faction, but at the same time, he had no possibility to threaten any of the factions. On the one hand, this fact limited him, on the other hand, it gave him some room for manoeuvre.

At the same time, it made Medvedev dependent on Putin, who continued to play the role of arbiter and had a strong political base behind him.

Missed Opportunity

Medvedev’s liberal attitudes were manifested in his tendency towards institutional and formal politics. He came to the Kremlin with a programme of moderate (not radical, after all, anything that smacks of radicalism or revolution is very unpopular in Russia) modernisation and reform, which focused on at least three areas – party politics, the fight against legal nihilism (i.e. a move towards the rule of law) and the modernisation of the Russian economy. In all three areas, however, his achievements were also modest, given the constraints he faced within a system that was in a stalemate between its two components of formal and informal politics.

In the case of modernisation, which became the buzzword of his presidency, Medvedev relied on cooperation with Europe, which offered a new type of modernisation partnership and a significant opportunity for Russia’s genuine integration in Europe. However, the liberal traits of his personality were also related to a certain generational mood (born 1965).

Medvedev reflected the more assertive awareness of young Russians towards the West. His presidency began with the conflict in Georgia in August 2008, which brought Russia into its first direct conflict with Western countries over Russia’s role and position in the post-Soviet space. In terms of great power totals, the dispute over whether or not Russia can have the status of regional power (hegemon) has become increasingly clear. While Russia insisted on this status, the West effectively rejected it.

From today’s perspective, it is clear that Medvedev’s presidency has become a missed opportunity to reverse the trend that has brought us to war in Ukraine and to the brink of a great war. Medvedev came up with proposals that re-articulated Russia’s objections to organising security in Europe on the basis of NATO membership alone. Moreover, despite a combative start, his presidency has objectively contributed to an improved relationship with the US and also with the EU, which has been represented by the modernisation agenda.

In his Berlin speech in June 2008, he made clear Russia’s interest in addressing the problem of divergent visions of security in Europe, and in other proposals and in the so-called Corfu process under the OSCE roof, Russia sought to establish a dialogue with Western partners. But unfortunately, again without a concrete response and for familiar reasons: the Western partners considered the current arrangement “satisfactory” and “balanced” and more or less ignored the Russian proposals for a pan-European system or called them too “vague”.

The main point was ignored: the gradual exclusion of Russia from Europe as a consequence of the impossibility of integrating it into the existing (in the West’s view “satisfactory”) system will have negative consequences for Europe’s security and will lead to its alienation and to an increase in anti-Western sentiment. The warnings of the Russian-Georgian war (which logically led to questioning Russian intentions by neighbours) led to a reinforcement of existing risk trends.

Rokirovka of 2011 as a Formative Moment

But to understand Medvedev today, it is necessary to look not only at his presidency but also at the events of 2011-2012, which gave the current political system a conservative shape and marked Putin’s return to the presidency.

This move, in terms of further developments, was in blatant contradiction to the direction Putin took in 2008. Indeed, it undoubtedly marked the next shift towards an increasingly personalist political regime. Unfortunately, it also meant long-term consequences. The return to the saddle not only had a personal dimension, but was also related to some other processes such as the Arab Spring (2011), the effects of the global financial crisis and the emerging stagnation that heralded the exhaustion of the Russian economic model, and the continued difficulty of significantly changing or modernising it in the context of the still existing informal mechanisms of politics (such as neo-patrimonialism) in Russia. There were thus both subjective and objective causes for the crisis of tandemocracy.

The subjective causes were most likely related to the fact that a second Medvedev presidency would strengthen his independence and reduce Putin’s control over the future course of whatever direction it might take.

The objective reasons were mainly the winter protests of 2011, which were triggered by the parliamentary elections and their results in the active part of Russian society. While the “street” was engaged against electoral fraud and manipulation, it was of course prefaced (and personified) by conflict within the elites or a significant part of them along the lines of Medvedev and his continuation versus Putin and his return.

On the one hand, there were those who were counting on Medvedev’s second term, but on the other hand, there were those who were terrified that Medvedev would begin to implement some of his liberalizing promises in a second presidency. From Putin’s point of view, a scenario similar to the ‘colour revolution’ was emerging in Russia, and moreover, developments suggested a conflict between elites and power factions in which Putin was placed in a completely new role: he was in fact the subject of a dispute. It should be added that the way Putin handled the next reshuffle in September 2011 was humiliating for Medvedev. The so-called rokirovka (castling in English) was accompanied by the narrative that this move had been prepared and agreed upon long ago, in 2008. While this was probably an attempt to make Medvedev come out of the rokirovka with fewer scars, it also gave the impression that both had effectively cheated the Russian electorate with such manipulation.

It seemed that Medvedev’s liberal leanings were not just superficial rhetoric as evidenced by the steps he pushed as a reform agenda even after it was abundantly clear that he was finished in the Kremlin. Medvedev used the December 2011 wave of protests in Russia’s major cities to push forward some longer-term plans. Among others: a return to the direct election of governors (which was abolished in 2004 in the wake of the Beslan events), changes to the system of Duma and presidential elections towards liberalisation, or the announcement of a plan to decentralise resources in favour of regions and municipalities. Putin however drew the main conclusion from the experience of tandemocracy – he saw it as a threat to stability or failure.

In terms of the system functioning it meant the absence of a real mechanism for leadership change or the failure of the attempt to build such a mechanism. His subsequent actions, including the changes to the constitution in 2020, seemed to reflect this, despite the problem of economic stagnation and a kind of political stalemate going nowhere.

But it was also a failure from Medvedev’s point of view. He failed to build his own base of support in the Kremlin in four years, which then gave him little room to manoeuvre when Putin decided to return to the presidency. This, his loyalty to Putin and the fact that Medvedev is systemic liberal par excellence, i.e. a politician who works with the system and is also concerned with his own benefit and ambitions, led him to agree to switch posts and serve as an increasingly unpopular prime minister until 2020, while Putin returned to the presidency.

February 24 became a new stage in the hegemony of the siloviki in the Russian political system.

Most likely as a result of at least two factors – the inertia of the conflict with the West and domestic stagnation. Thus, the explanation for Medvedev’s transformation may be quite prosaic in the context of the labyrinths of recent Russian politics, following the proverb “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

On the other hand, it is also quite paradoxical given the fact that his selection for the presidency in 2008 was inspired, among other things, by the desire to maintain balance and not allow the siloviki to gain the upper hand.

Cover photo: Dmitry Medvedev speaking in Russian Duma (the parliament), 2018.

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