Saturday, May 10, 2008

New Russian president, Dmitry A. Medvedev, was sworn into office Wednesday following his sweep of March elections. He assumed power amid speculation that he is merely a “puppet” of his authoritarian predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin, Russian president since 2000, was constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term. Yet he has become prime minister and will continue to wield considerable power.

It is therefore unclear whether Mr. Medvedev will have any latitude to implement the liberal reforms he has promised throughout his campaign. During his inaugural speech, Mr. Medvedev reiterated his commitment to “protect and respect human rights and freedoms.” He stressed the importance of developing Russia’s civil society, overhauling its judiciary and fighting corruption. He brought particular attention to the importance of establishing the rule of law: This will undergird his agenda to modernize Russia and bring more people into the middle class. Following his election, Mr. Medvedev became the chairman of a liberal think tank; its proposals include lifting state control over the media, providing open political competition, fostering judicial independence and curtailing state control of the economy.

But Mr. Medvedev’s stated liberal inclinations are in sharp contrast to disturbing facts which denote that Russia will continue along its current trajectory. His very rise to power was undemocratic: The March elections permitted only limited opposition. Also, during the inaugural, dissidents who wished to stage a protest were denied a permit and many key figures remain in jail. The government continues to exert overwhelming influence over private companies—many of which have been nationalized.

Furthermore, political power continues to be centralized. Mr. Putin has a firm hold over United Russia Party, which holds 315 of 450 seats in the Duma. As prime minister, he will be able to set economic policy. Moreover, Mr. Putin enacted legislative reforms by which he has control over a “vertical” power structure across the nation: He will thus dominate provincial and local bodies. The former president is also creating a mega-cabinet which contains many fierce opponents of Mr. Medvedev; they are likely to restrict his sphere of influence.

Western governments remain wary of a nation which appears to harbor imperialist ambitions. The Kremlin has increased its official military spending from $5 billion in 2002 to $42 billion this year. Moscow has also been escalating its troop deployments in Georgia in a display of solidarity with the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — an act which is an infringement of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Given the current constellation of forces, even if Mr. Medvedev is sincere in his avowed liberal principles, his ability to implement reforms is limited. It is likely that even under Mr. Medvedev’s rule, Russian national goals will only be achieved—as they have in the past—at great cost to the liberties of its citizens and neighbors.

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