Will President Medvedev Really Break with Putin and Liberalize Russia?

In recent months, there have been a few indications that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev might break with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – the authoritarian leader who handpicked him for his current position – and liberalize the country’s economic and political system. In today’s Wall Street Journal, however, Russian opposition leader Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion, writes that a Putin-Medvedev breakup may be less likely than many Westerners hope:

It has become fashionable to speak of change and liberalization in Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev. May 7 marked his one-year anniversary in office. He has recently granted an interview with an opposition newspaper, allowed a few human-rights activists to criticize Russia’s regime, and even started a blog. There is also a new administration in Washington that wants a fresh start with foreign powers.

However, Mr. Medvedev’s gestures have not been matched by policy. It is more appropriate to think of Russia as living under Vladimir Putin’s ninth year in power. Mr. Putin is now prime minister but still in charge. His agenda of oppression and plunder is still the course in Russia. The Kremlin’s willingness to install its candidates in office [without free election] and persecute its opponents remains undiminished.

If Medvedev does make a decisive break with Putin, Kasparov believes it will likely be because of political pressures created by the global recession rather than because Medvedev genuinely wants liberalization:

There are optimistic rumors in the West of a potential rift between Messrs. Medvedev and Putin. With the steep drop in energy prices, the Russian economy in free fall, and the need to find a scapegoat, a clash is likely. But it will not be because the two men differ significantly in matters of morality and power. We have seen enough to recognize that they are both enemies of democracy, open competition, and free expression.

That seems roughly accurate to me.

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