Will the meek inherit Russia?
Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. (Getty Images)
June 30th, 2011
09:56 PM ET

Will the meek inherit Russia?

Editor's Note:  is the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics; she teaches international affairs at The New School and is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. For more from Khrushcheva, check out Project Syndicate and visit it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Nina Khrushcheva

In a recent interview, Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev proclaimed that he wants a second term in office following the 2012 election, but that he would not run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who put him in power in the first place. Such a rivalry, Medvedev implied, would damage the country’s well-being and image.

Medvedev’s statement should end speculation about whether he is running, yet it keeps the suspense alive regarding Putin, whose influence is far greater than that of Russia’s meek president. Many, particularly in the West, would like to see Putin and his prickly, anti-Western authoritarianism pass from the scene.

Indeed, over the last ten years, Russian foreign policy has been animated by defensiveness and suspicion. Russia even has uneasy relations with the congenitally non-threatening European Union. It is touchy about the independence of the near-abroad countries, especially those politically or geographically close to the West – Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. More than a decade after the fact, the Kremlin still decries NATO’s eastward enlargement as a security threat.

The reality, of course, is that NATO is as much of an offensive threat to Russia as Switzerland is. But it is not NATO’s military power that Putin’s Kremlin finds alarming; the real threat is the alliance’s potential to “swallow” Moldova or Ukraine at some point. Creating a precedent for the democratization of post-Soviet space is a nightmare scenario for Putin and his cronies.

As in Soviet times, the main task of today’s ruling elite – Putin and his former KGB associates – is to preserve their tight-knit political and economic regime, built for their personal control and material benefit. Russian foreign policy is, as it was under the Soviets, an extension of official domestic priorities.

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The current regime is clearly autocratic. Yet it aspires to democratic legitimacy in the eyes of Russian citizens and the international community. It is to this end that Medvedev performs his civilizing mission – participating in world forums, posting Twitter updates, berating rampant corruption, and supporting “modernization” and the “rule of law.”

The result of this duality – authoritarian establishment and Potemkin Village democratic façade – is that Russia occupies a unique geopolitical no man’s land. A democratic Russia would want to catch up with the West and integrate into Western institutions. Yet this is not in the group interests of Putin’s backers, the people who run, and own, Russia: its security, military, and industrial complex.

Of course, these people have been personally integrated into Europe for two decades now – their money is in European banks; their holiday villas are in the south of France, Tuscany, and the Greek isles; their children are educated in the poshest boarding schools. So, despite the current regime’s tough, often anti-Western rhetoric, they are not at all interested in closing Russia off from the West. What they want is to prevent the integration with the West of Russia itself, for that would mean the end of their regime.

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But, to sustain the charade of a strong and prosperous Russia, standing against the predations and hypocrisy of the West, the regime cannot be as authoritarian as Putin himself might wish. If it were, Swiss banks and international organizations would close their doors. So the regime’s backers have a strong interest in maintaining its “democratic” side.

The West, despite its years of experience in dealing with the Soviets, is still a sucker for such Janus-like behavior, especially now, when Medvedev presents such an endearing democratic face. In June, speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Medvedev mesmerized his audience by simultaneously sounding avant-garde and hackneyed: he attacked corruption, vowed that Russia is not “building state capitalism,” and promised legal and federal reforms. Decisions, he said, should be left to business or made locally, not in the Kremlin.

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The St. Petersburg Economic Forum is mostly for international consumption. If Western bankers and investors want to buy snake oil, that is their business. But no one should leave such events thinking that anything Medvedev says means that Russia is changing.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, usually a sharp critic of Russia, arrived in Moscow in March, supposedly to convince Putin to surrender his presidential ambitions for 2012. A month later, talking to Putin by phone, Biden invited him to visit Washington, though, according to Russia’s constitution, the prime minister has no foreign-policy role. Does the United States support Putin in the elections, or, by recognizing Putin’s historic importance, do the Americans mean to convince him to leave power? No one knows.

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Until Russia’s internal political situation changes, relations with the West will remain unchanged and ambiguous. Putin, however, would be well advised to listen to Biden, who is rumored to have offered him important international positions, such as chairing the International Olympic Committee, or perhaps even leading the United Nations. After all, Putin knows well the old Soviet playbook: the fate of previous KGB functionaries may await him.

Dreaded secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria, who operated the machinery of repression under Joseph Stalin, was executed by the system he perfected, after being sentenced to death in 1953 for “spying against the state.” In his decade in power, Putin has consolidated and strengthened the security forces, intimidated and jailed opponents, and muzzled the media and courts. If he doesn’t step down or aside so that Russia can move forward, the system he has created may turn his own methods against him.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nina Khrushcheva. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011. 

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Topics: Russia

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    It is a wishful thinking that Nina Khrushcheva, a great grand-daughter of the legendary Nikita Khrushchev, who lliving and teaching in New York, could have Russia, her country of origin be transformed into a western democracy so soon.
    Russia has always been a lone wolf on the international stage. Moscow stands geographically on its own and in the old days foreign politics were very regional until Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg and made it the capital in 1712. Being closer to Europe, Russia wrote its first chapter in history on expansionism towards Europe. Peter the Great was the first internationalist, who had travelled around Europe and showed his interests in many fields. Back home he modernised his country by adopting the European model. His work had been neglected after his death 1725 and was carried on only 20 years later by Catheirne, a German princess who later became the Czarina. She remained the only influential foreigner in Russia, who had managed to move the country forward.
    History had also seen occassionally a number of internationalists in Russia who were and are mainly of Jewish ancestry, yet they were and are not well perceived.
    Maybe in our age of information and communication technology, the younger generation will be more open and with time a new and modern Russia will emerge, yet Russia will never become an European democracy.
    Vladmir Putin and many in Kremlin today are remnants of the the Sovjet Russia, which fell only 20 years ago. I would say Dmitiri is smitten with western democracy, after what he has seen abroad during his tenure as president. It is a very good thing, yet I am afraid that at the moment he stands very much on his own in Kremlin.
    Have patience, Ms Khrushcheva, I am sure you will see a face of Russia emerge. It is just a matter of a timely process.

    July 1, 2011 at 6:25 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Correction: you will see a NEW face of Russia emerge.
      Your comment – "As in Soviet times, the main task of today’s ruling elite – Putin and his former KGB associates – is to preserve their tight-knit political and economic regime, built for their personal control and material benefit. Russian foreign policy is, as it was under the Soviets, an extension of official domestic priorities."
      Russia is not alone, China holds a tight grip on its economy and politics as well. The only virtue they learn from the west is luxury consumerism, otherwise they can live without the west.

      July 1, 2011 at 8:00 am | Reply
  2. Sam

    last thing Russia should be concerned about – what do some folks in the west want.

    July 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  3. mb2010a

    Personally I think Putin is soooo HOT...

    July 1, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  4. zero

    Imitating the West has always been a disaster for Russia and will continue to be in the future. Russians should embrace the egalitarian ideal of the Soviets and nationalism – two things liberals have tried to suppress. Even polling shows that nationalists and communists are the biggest challenge to the ruling party – not pro-Western liberals who are twisting in the wind.

    July 1, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  5. Not.As.Dumb.As.U

    Nobody knows anything. The smart people recognize this and make bold decisions. I'm already in the Russian economy and I'm expanding everyday. Bye bye. Take Care. Good Luck. You people will need it in this economy.

    July 1, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Reply
  6. Bill Simpson

    Our politicians are for sale (Wall Street bought them), theirs are mobsters.

    July 1, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Reply

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