March 3, 2008
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected president on Sunday in a landslide that was almost universally predicted. Medvedev was the handpicked candidate of outgoing President Vladimir Putin and, as expected, he asked Putin to stay on as his prime minister. Russian critics and Western observers said the election was heavily tilted toward Medvedev and questioned whether he or Putin would wield power after the May 7 inauguration. Medvedev, 42, will be Russia’s youngest leader since Czar Nicholas II. (Reuters)
What the commentators said
The only real suspense, said Michael Idov in The New Republic, was voter turnout. Moscow bookmakers didn’t even take bets on Medvedev’s victory, just “an over-under on his getting 71 percent of the vote.” The Kremlin will likely fudge the numbers to “avoid the embarrassment of broadcasting Russia’s electoral apathy to the world.” In fact, in “textbook Freudian transference,” many Russians are coping with “Medvedev’s preordained victory” through a “sporting obsession with the American Democratic primaries,” which enthralls them like a Latin American soap opera.
If they were paying attention, they saw that Hillary Clinton couldn’t even come up with Medvedev’s name, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. “Meh, um, Menedvadah—whatever,” was her response, and it was correct in revealing the “larger truth” about the election: Medvedev doesn’t matter much, at least not yet. Putin rigged the election so “power would stay in his hands,” and he has the “cronies” to back him up.
You never know with these Russian leaders, said Matthew Yglesias in The Atlantic. Remember that when Putin took office in 2000, “he was seen as a cipher handpicked by Boris Yeltsin to do the Yeltsin clan’s bidding.” That didn’t work out too well for the Yeltsin clan, and it’s possible that Medvedev will use the presidency’s “large de jure powers to ensure that he’s de facto running the country.”
The question of what President Medvedev will do is an open one, said Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post (free registration). He had only one “public meeting” during the whole campaign, and one wonders why Russia even bothered to hold this “farcical election.” Apparently, the Putin clique is desperate to maintain a veneer of "legitimacy" to stave off the kind of “Western-inspired popular discontent” that led to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Putin's ploy might just work, too, “at least until the oil runs out.”
Foreigners are too hard on Putin, said Victor Erofeyev in The New York Times (free registration). In the West, people only see that he “did away with” liberal democrats and the free press. He also “managed to destroy Communism”—and “brutally” at that—and rid Russia of the “power-seeking oligarchs” and the “chaos and instability” of the post-Soviet 1990s. Not even Putin knows “Medvedev’s real goals and values,” but it is on his “young shoulders” that Russia’s future rests. “For better of for worse,” he is the country’s “last hope.”