Medvedev's Status-Quo Liberalism

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Many observers have concluded that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who in all probability will become the next president in March, is a liberal. But it is a mystery to me why so many people sign on to this interpretation. It may be because Medvedev has a smooth, soft-spoken and intelligent way of speaking. In addition, he is not known for making hard-line speeches and has never engaged in diatribes against the West -- that is, not yet.

Let's assume that he will pursue a more liberal course than the current one. If that is the case, what would such liberalism look like in practice? And would it be possible to implement it in today's Russia?

As far as security issues are concerned, Medvedev is unlikely to alter President Vladimir Putin's opposition to placing elements of U.S. anti-missile systems in Central Europe. And it won't be easy to do an about-face and end the Kremlin's moratorium on participating in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. In addition, Medvedev will probably continue Russia's policy of gaining maximum leverage from its oil and gas exports, a policy the West labels as "oil and gas blackmail."

Members of the country's current political and economic elite are not inclined toward compromising with the West, and they would prefer to extend their influence abroad. It would be utopian to expect that Russia's current generation of politicians could forego all dreams of imperial greatness. For this reason, there is no point in waiting for a "thaw" in the mood within the country.

In addition, Medvedev's reputation as a so-called liberal might prompt him to go far in the opposite direction with his foreign policy to prove to the anti-West faction within the Kremlin that he is not as spineless as many of them believe. Most of all, he wants to avoid becoming another Andrei Kozyrev, the former foreign minister under Boris Yeltsin, who was known for making too many concessions to the West.

On the other hand, Medvedev might manage to establish friendly bilateral relations with certain foreign leaders, and this could lead to a range of foreign policy achievements. Putin was successful in doing this with U.S. President George W. Bush, French Presidents Jacques Chirac and later Nicolas Sarkozy, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and especially with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der. But Putin is an experienced former KGB operative and knows how to "recruit" people, while Medvedev does not have this talent.

It is likely that Medvedev will have a freer hand on the domestic front. He could develop a healthy dialogue between business leaders and the authorities. One long overdue step would be to complete the reforms to the judicial system initiated by Dmitry Kozak when he worked in the presidential administration during Putin's first term. With enough persistence, Medvedev might achieve some results, despite resistance from the siloviki.

The country's main problems stem from its terribly inefficient state institutions and rampant corruption. A genuine "liberal revolution" is required to combat these enormous problems. This would involve bringing a broad spectrum of the population into the public dialogue, democratization of the country's politics and freeing the mass media from their current domination by the state. It is unlikely that Medvedev is capable of making such a decisive departure from the current course -- especially when Putin, in his capacity as prime minister, will be keeping a very close eye on the president.

Some countries have successfully used extremely harsh measures to deal with corruption. Could Medvedev break from his reputation as a liberal and become a "second Lukashenko"?

In all probability, Medvedev will simply opt for leaving things as they are. But maintaining the status quo does not qualify as liberalism by any stretch of the imagination.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.