In a talk moderated by Ambassador James F. Collins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Moscow Center Scholar-in-Residence Alexei Arbatov gave his thoughts and analysis of the legacy President Putin leaves as he makes way for newly-elected Dmitry Medvedev, a man who not too long ago was considered an unlikely successor. Dr. Arbatov noted that despite the controversy it has ignited in the West, the March 2 presidential election marks the first time in 1,000 years of Russian history that a Russian leader in good health and enjoying massive popularity has ceded power in order to obey the rule of law -- Article 81 of the Russian Constitution, which imposes a two-term limit. Therefore, whatever else may be said about Putin's legacy, the fact that he chose to step down rather than stay on to power -- a course which, given his immense popularity, would have been an easy matter of simply amending the constitution -- is a significant step in Russian political history.
Dr. Arbatov argued that Putin's selection of Medvedev likely represents a real decision on his part in favor of reform and modernization. He noted that Medvedev's public statements, such as his speech in Krasnoyarsk, directly contravene Putin's own public remarks -- something Putin would never allow if he did not wish it to be the case. Medvedev also broke with his predecessor over another fundamental issue, Russia's relations with the West, by saying that Western concern over Russia's political and economic unpredictability was at the core of recent tensions. Putin's argument has been that Russian-Western relations soured as Russia became strong and that therefore the West's distaste at a strong Russia is to blame for the present state of affairs in relations.
As to the much-discussed contours of the Putin-Medvedev dynamic -- the structure of government once Medvedev appoints Putin as prime minister, which he has promised to do -- Dr. Arbatov argued that Medvedev will remain dependent on Putin until he builds his own constituency and power base. Given his youth and inexperience, he needs Putin in order to consolidate the key domestic players and keep the government running smoothly. Medvedev's dependence on Putin and liberal leanings, Dr. Arbatov argued, were likely among the major characteristics for which Putin chose him as successor. Among the other major Russian power brokers discussed as possible replacements for Putin -- influential insiders such as First Deputy Minister Sergei Ivanov, head of the giant state-run enterprise Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, and security apparatus veteran Viktor Cherkesov -- who could Putin expect to live up to his commitments to follow the Putin Plan and retain Putin at the center of politics? Dr. Arbatov argued that Medvedev was the only person Putin could trust.
He took on the view that dismisses Medvedev's liberal proposals in light of his dependence on Putin, saying that the simplistic categorization of Putin as "bad" in contrast to Boris Yeltsin as a "good" democrat does not hold water. There is a sense of change and a new mood arising in Russia today, Dr. Arbatov said, which points to a new stage in Russia's political and economic development.
While Yeltsin's historic task was to destroy Communism, he went too far and brought the state to social and economic collapse. Putin met the widespread need for stability the country felt after Yeltsin, bringing about an end to major violence in the post-Soviet space and withdrawing Russian troops from abroad. One of his major accomplishments was to keep the authorities from intruding heavily in people's daily lives, which counted for a great deal among the Russian people, who generally distrust the authorities. Although he curtailed democratic institutions and norms, Putin left the country open and allowed Russians to go abroad at will. Yet for all that, he said, Putin went too far as well -- from stability to stagnation. Although he remains very popular with the public and elite, there is a growing feeling in the country that this new prosperity is like a soap bubble -- a very fragile development that could go away, for example if oil prices suddenly drop. Putin's attempts to diversify the economy failed.
Putin even acknowledged some of the failings of his administration in the four-hour final press conference he held, in which he said he was content with his accomplishments in his statement but then in the questions-and-answers period noted he had failed on three counts: (1) to switch from an oil-dependent economy to a high-tech economy; (2) to establish a high-functioning state apparatus; and (3) to clamp down significantly on corruption. The listing of these three issues, which are really tied together in a larger context of the need for modernization, reflect the mood of the Russian elite and public about the challenges the country now faces. This is especially the case given the fact that to stabilize the country Putin had to put in place a structure that could exactly not accomplish those three things.
On foreign policy, Dr. Arbatov said that Putin went too far to aggravate the West, not that the West was correct and Russia was in the wrong. Russia, enjoying its newfound strength, focused too much on what it did not like and not enough on what it wanted to see. Russia tried to occupy a position in the middle of the road -- between the West and the Eastern world, China, the Muslim world, Hugo Chavez, and Hamas -- and ended up drifting away from the West. Although the Russian elite would like to maintain good relations with those other players, it does not want to be in their camp away from the West.
There is therefore a strong feeling that change is needed. And if Medvedev is simply Putin's puppet, Dr. Arbatov said, why does he sound like he is reading from the liberal Yabloko Party platform rather than repeating the same Putin argument over and over again? Dr. Arbatov said that Medvedev has emphasized freedom and justice as the main ideals for Russia, civil dignity, social responsibility, investing in human capital through the health and social spheres, and overcoming Russia's legal nihilism. He put forward four areas in particular as planks of his program: investment, strengthening democratic institutions, revamping infrastructure, and encouraging innovation. Dr. Arbatov added that these are all part of a modernization program that if it is to be successful will need strong intellectual property laws, independent courts, better law enforcement, and a normal division of powers between government branches -- and if those are to be achieved, he will need civil society, a free press, and NGOs. They are all linked in a complicated chain that Medvedev will have to start on in order to fulfill his platform. Medvedev's objective will be to start modernization to move the Russian system on to a solid foundation. Putin's leaving is a great historic leap for Russia -- a fact that goes unappreciated in the West. As Dr. Arbatov put it: it is bad that the elections were not free and fair; it is good that Putin chose a good successor; it is bad that Russia would never have chosen Medvedev in free elections; and it is good that Russia has accepted Medvedev as the successor.
Dr. Arbatov outlined three possible scenarios for the new arrangement of power:
1. Putin stays in power, and Medvedev is a symbolic public relations figure. In this scenario, Medvedev has only to propose Putin as prime minister and refrain from exercising his constitutional right to dismiss the prime minister. Putin enhances the power of the prime minister by using the office's constitutional powers to their maximum extent -- which include the ability to propose ministers of agencies, control the budget, and deal with the major domestic players, including the parliament.
2. Russia's government is unable to resolve the problems facing the nation. Putin blames Medvedev, who defends himself on the basis of only being in power for a short time. There is a rupture in the government and a crisis of power. It would not be clear in this scenario who, if Medvedev is ousted, would become president.
3. Medvedev is successful in addressing problems, and as he succeeds power and influence flow to him and enhance his stature. Medvedev fulfills his campaign promises gradually but surely and initiates a modernization program for Russia's society and economy.
Dr. Arbatov noted that much of the success of this third scenario depends on good relations with the West, further adding that Russia's foreign policy environment has deep implications for its domestic political and economic choices and future. He argued for a new Western approach to Russia that employs diplomacy where the two differ rather than trying to explain Russia's proper interests to Russians or proceeding unilaterally over Russian objections.