It’s a long time since Dmitry Medvedev was last considered a potential liberal hope for Russia. Most recently, after all, he has threatened to bomb any country that seeks to apply the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) recent arrest warrant on Vladimir Putin and separately read a working group of the Military Industrial Commission a 1941 telegram from Stalin that threatened anyone who failed to meet their targets with being ‘smashing as criminals who disregard the honour and interests of the homeland’. What is going on?
A lawyer by training, who got to know the Russian president in St Petersburg during the 1990s, Medvedev ran Putin’s first presidential election campaign in 2000, was his chief of staff between 2003 and 2005 and then first deputy prime minister between 2005 and 2008. Between 2008 and 2012, Medvedev was Putin’s anointed choice of presidential seat-warmer, to observe the forms of term limits and become a symbol of what could be called a kinder, gentler Putinism. He spoke the language of legalism, was a technocrat in love with his Western iPhone and iPad, and was happy to make much of his early passion for Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
Even so, he was essentially the front man with Putin now prime minister and puppeteer. A leaked US diplomatic cable recounted a joke doing the rounds in Moscow: ‘Medvedev sits in the driver’s seat of a new car, examines the inside, the instrument panel, and the pedals. He looks around, but the steering wheel is missing. He turns to Putin and asks: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the steering wheel?” Putin pulls a remote control out of his pocket and says: “I’ll be the one doing the driving.”’
Some in his entourage tried to get him to stand against Putin in a proper election, but Medvedev ultimately handed power back, meekly nominating his former notional underling as the best man for the job.