The Vladimir Putin era of Russian politics came to an end this week, at least officially, when Dmitri Medvedev was sworn in as Russia’s new president. The 42-year-old Medvedev, a corporate lawyer by trade who has never held elective office, is a close ally—many say an outright puppet—of the popular Putin, who was barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive four-year term. Medvedev’s first act as president was to nominate Putin to be Russia’s new prime minister. Nevertheless, there are hopes that Medvedev may have a stronger commitment to democracy and human rights than did Putin. “I believe my most important aims will be to protect civil and economic freedoms,” Medvedev said in his inaugural address. “We must fight for a true respect of the law.”
Medvedev has his work cut out for him, said Tony Halpin in the London Times. He inherits an economy that, while still booming, faces grave challenges from runaway inflation and widespread corruption. Even more daunting, Russia’s population is rapidly shrinking due to a combination of disease, alcoholism, and low birth rates. Moreover, Medvedev must tackle all this with Putin at the very least looking over his shoulder, if not actively trying to retain “a firm grip on power.”
The new Russian president has an even more immediate problem, said The New York Times in an editorial. Russia is currently engaged in a dangerous “game of cat-and-mouse with neighboring Georgia” over the disputed region of Abkhazia. Medvedev “needs to move quickly to calm things down.” Armed conflict between Russia and Georgia would be disastrous for both nations; defusing the tensions that Putin ratcheted up would be an effective way for Medvedev to “prove his independence.”
Putin may well consider Medvedev his puppet, said Marshall Goldman in The Boston Globe, and Medvedev may accept that role—for the time being. Inevitably, though, he’ll “come to believe he should be his own man.” Given Medvedev’s stated commitment to democracy and government reform, that’s probably good news for Russians. Whether that means Medvedev might also turn away from Putin’s confrontational foreign policy, though, remains anyone’s guess.