So Much Will Depend On the Prime Minister

The Moscow Times
Tony Barber
March 14, 2008

According to a joke doing the rounds in Brussels, two Eurocrats are discussing the European Union’s Russia policy. “I wonder what things are going to be like after Putin,” says one. “Hard to say,” replies the other. “A lot will depend on the new prime minister.”

To some, President Vladimir Putin’s continuance as prime minister suggests little immediate change in the truculent tone of Russia’s dealings with the EU over recent years. Putin himself told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday that Dmitry Medvedev would defend Russia’s interests just as strongly as he has done.

For many in Brussels and other EU capitals, trained as they are to think of nationalism as a bad thing, shudders surely went up their spines when they heard Putin describe Medvedev as “no less a nationalist — in the good sense of the word — than I am.” Still, Medvedev is no more a Putin clone than Putin was a clone of Boris Yeltsin. It is my belief that, after a certain spell of time, we will see a difference in Russian policies — starting with domestic matters such as state administration, economic innovation and social policy and gradually extending to Russia’s role on the world stage.

It should come as no surprise that Putin played up Medvedev’s tough qualities. I vividly recall being in Moscow in 1985 when Andrei Gromyko, the long-serving Soviet foreign minister, recommended Mikhail Gorbachev for the Communist Party leadership after Konstantin Chernenko’s death. “Comrades,” Gromyko said of Gorbachev, “this man has a nice smile, but he has teeth of iron.” This does not mean, however, that Medvedev is a closet liberal whose heartfelt wish is to emulate Gorbachev.

Don’t forget that, the Gorbachev era is remembered by many as a time not only of new and exciting freedoms and the end of the Cold War, but of economic chaos, food shortages, a misconceived anti-alcohol campaign, rising nationalism, violent separatism, public disorder and, in the end, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Medvedev will take lessons from that experience just as much as from the corruption and continuing economic upheavals of the Yeltsin era. As chairman of Gazprom, he can hardly be unaware that Russia’s economic revival under Putin owes almost everything to a bonanza in oil and gas income, and little to modernization and innovation in the country’s industrial and service sectors.

All this supports the argument that Medvedev will introduce changes to the economy, to the state’s treatment of its citizens and in time, perhaps, to the nation’s foreign policy. But he will do it in his own, very personal, and very Russian, way.

This comment appeared in the Financial Times.