Next year could bring an epic presidential election campaign that will change the direction of a former Cold War superpower. I am not talking about the election in the United States.
Russia’s current president, Dmitri Medvedev, and its current prime minister and former two-term president, Vladimir Putin, have both said they are considering running for the country’s presidency next year. “Both President Medvedev and I do not rule out that each of us may run for the presidency,” Putin told journalists. Medvedev said in an interview on Chinese television that he considers it his duty as the incumbent to at least contemplate running.
Medvedev was previously Putin’s chief of staff. Putin encouraged him to run for the presidency in 2008, when a limit on consecutive terms made Putin himself ineligible. Medvedev won in what the Telegraph newspaper of London called “the most one-sided presidential election in Russia's post-Soviet history.” He showed his gratitude by selecting Putin as prime minister.
Since taking office, Medvedev, a former lawyer, has vocally advocated legal reform, but his talk has been largely unaccompanied by action. Until recently, his biggest accomplishment was to establish greater transparency in the pay of civil servants — a small move toward order in a country where dissidents are still regularly convicted by puppet courts and where journalists attempting to engage in honest reporting still risk assassination.
Observers continue to speculate about how much power actually changed hands following the 2008 elections. The position of prime minister had been fairly weak in Russia, but Putin wields considerable authority in the current government. Medvedev replaced only two of the 75 top officials he inherited from the Putin regime, according to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin’s United Russia party and a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who spoke with The Washington Post.
This month, however, Medvedev made a bold move in approving a new state policy designed to fight “legal nihilism.” The policy specifically aims to increase respect for the law, a stark departure from the Putin-era politics that led Russia to rank 154th out of 178 countries in Berlin-based Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. The policy also makes it the government’s responsibility to ensure that citizens can defend their rights by granting them “access to qualified legal assistance.”
Given Putin’s record, the fight against legal nihilism, if it is waged in earnest, must be a fight against Putin. Under his watch, a fragile, nascent democracy eroded, and an autocratic, xenophobic, nightmarish echo of the old Communist state grew in its place. If Medvedev is truly looking for reform, he and Putin will need to part ways.
In the past few months, there have been other signs of a possible rift between the two leaders, as Medvedev pushes for closer ties with the West and Putin continues to resist those ties. The situation in Libya, in particular, revealed Medvedev’s and Putin’s diverging viewpoints, with Medvedev making the decision to abstain on the U.N. Security Council Resolution establishing a no-fly zone. Many expected Russia to veto the resolution, which Putin called “moronic” and compared to a “medieval call to crusade.” Medvedev later referred to the “unacceptable” language used by “some politicians,” a clear attack on Putin.
Conspiracy theories are always popular in Russia, so it is not surprising that some observers, both inside the country and elsewhere, believe that there is no real conflict, and that Medvedev and Putin will decide who will be the next president behind closed doors. The apparent disagreement, they say, is simply a ploy to create the appearance of democracy. “Our politics are a theater,” Kryshtanovskaya told The Washington Post. “There are directors and a script. And for some reason they love it when the public says there are conflicts.”
But sometimes what begins as a show can take on a reality of its own. It no longer seems impossible that a real contest will take place between Putin and his one-time protege.
The next American president will have to cope with two wars, a battle against terrorism, trillion-dollar deficits and mind-boggling debt. But our president will only determine how the laws that govern our country are implemented. The next president of the Russian Federation could well determine whether that country will really be governed by laws at all.