One of the more surprising things about Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s endorsement of Vladimir Putin as his successor is how much it seemed to surprise the journalists covering it.
Western correspondents and commentators, particularly those based in Moscow, took to Twitter in a paroxysm of knowing cynicism during Saturday’s congress of the pro-Putin United Russia party. Their reaction belied the fact that, for at least six months now, they have been writing articles playing down the inevitability of precisely this inevitable outcome.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Julia Ioffe admitted that “even despite these last few months, when it became clear that Putin would come back, we managed to be surprised all over again when it actually happened”. Tweeting hypothetical reasons Medvedev had not been “allow[ed]” a second term, Prospect’s Tomas Hirst summed up the president’s capitulation to his puppet master as “genuinely disappointing”.
It was, of course, also genuinely predictable. Indeed, it is almost as though Western correspondents had begun to believe their own column-padding beat-ups about Medvedev’s ambitions as a liberal reformer, about tensions in the ruling tandem, and about the country finally having, in the words of The Moscow Times‘ Victor Davidoff, “a real presidential race” on its hands. Only three days before Medvedev’s endorsement, that same paper was running hopeful articles quoting United Russia insiders who claimed that Putin would not be returning to the presidency.
A combination of wishful thinking and wilful blindness, these talking points are as easily dismissed today as they were long before the weekend’s announcement, the events that inspired them as easily shown up as misdirects on the road back to autocratic rule.
Putin’s successor and soon to be predecessor, Medvedev was hand-picked for the presidency nearly four years ago, when Vladimir Vladimirovich was constitutionally obliged to step down after eight years in the role. Putin remained as the country’s prime minister, as well as its most powerful and photographed man, fully aware of the loophole that would allow him to return for at least two more terms in the Kremlin should he wish to do so.
The idea that Medvedev, at some point during this period, decided to become something entirely other than his master’s servant — namely, a liberal with a mind towards modernisation and democratisation — is entirely at odds with almost everything we know about him before his forced ascension.
In A Russian Diary, Anna Politkovkaya’s blow-by-blow account of Putin’s successful attempts to dismantle Russian democracy during his second term, the slain journalist quotes Medvedev, then the director of the Presidential Administration, as telling representatives of the country’s regional electoral commissions that elections were little more than “a threat to stability”.
In The Age of Assassins, Yuri Felshtinsky’s and Vladimir Pribylovsky’s book on the subterranean machinations of the KGB’s successor organisation, the FSB, and its near-isomorphic relationship with the ruling oligarchy and its figureheads, Medvedev is described as having played a key role in the International Relations Committee of the St Petersburg mayor’s office, headed by Putin in the early nineties and investigated for illegally greasing the wheels of the security establishment’s system of you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours corruption.
Both these claims clash jarringly against the depiction of Medvedev as a liberal crusader and anti-corruption advocate, just as several the so-called reforms he made during his time as president clash jarringly with the depiction of him as some kind of born-again democrat. Most notable among these is his 2008 amendment to the constitution that extended presidential term limits from four to six years, a move that puts him in the company of such bastions of good governance as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. If he hasn’t gone as far as his Latin American counterparts in abolishing term limits entirely, it is surely because, as this week’s events make perfectly clear, they effectively have been already.
The suggestion that there have been tensions in the so-called ruling tandem is similarly disingenuous. While The Moscow Times’ Davidoff has been pushing this line with fingers crossed at least since last November, when WikiLeaks revealed that US diplomats in Moscow characterised the relationship of Putin to Medvedev as similar to that of Batman to Robin, the meme really caught on with NATO’s intervention in Libya this year and the textbook example of political theatre that followed it.
Not three hours after Putin’s comments comparing the intervention to a medieval crusade, Medvedev was publicly calling them unacceptable. This was held up by many commentators as evidence of growing tensions between the two. The German Council on Foreign Relations’ Alexander Rahr wrote that Putin and Medvedev had offered “two parallel [foreign] policies for almost three years now, which is good, because it means Russia is becoming accustomed to pluralism”. Rahr even went so far as to suggest that the pair might eventually head competing parties. In The Guardian and The New York Times, Time and The Wall Street Journal, correspondents dutifully reported that the tandem appeared to be on the rocks.
The speedy reconciliation between the two — and the simultaneous synthesis of the positions that supposedly triggered their spat — went somewhat less remarked upon. Indeed, every apparent clash between them over the past four years — over anti-corruption measures or how best to handle the country’s economic crisis — has been similarly dealt with and similarly reported upon: the division has been exaggerated, the signs of democratic life overblown, and the swift reconciliation and its attendant corollary, that there was never really any division at all, ignored.
By keeping the international and domestic media guessing as to which of them might eventually run, Putin and Medvedev co-opted journalists and commentators into their dissimulation. The press has been cast as the chorus in an anti-democratic farce. Suggesting that Russia might have had a “real presidential race” on its hands — that the Russian people somehow had a choice between Putin and Medvedev or even a way of expressing a preference beyond baring their breasts — was a way of avoiding the more important story, which is that the country again was a one-party state. The only choice facing its citizens was between false opposites, and it wasn’t even their choice to make.
In her Foreign Policy piece, Ioffe admitted that journalists “let other debates get in the way” of this essential fact. But the so-called debates she cited were “the long silly distraction of wondering who was actually in charge” and “the disputes over whether to believe Medvedev’s talk of modernisation”. In other words, the very debates the Kremlin wanted them to be having, having so cynically provided them with such well-scripted distractions in the first place.
Western journalists treating the hiccupping one-party system as though it was about to cough up its pluralistic opposite may have seen Putin’s third term coming. But by pretending that it was anything other than inevitable they have merely given the unfortunate impression that they have, so to speak, been eating the borscht.
*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba. Currently preparing to cover the Russian presidential election in 2012, he is partially financing his project with reader donations and crowdsourced funds. You can contribute here.