What to Make of Medvedev
by Robert Skidelsky
published in Vedomosti | Thursday, March 13, 2008

The advent of the Medvedev presidency has brought into focus two opposite conjectures about Russia. One is represented by Edward Lucas’s book ‘The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West’. Lucas argues that Russia is trying to rewrite the last chapter of the Cold War. Under Putin it has been using its oil and gas, its strategic alliance with China, and divide and rule tactics to regain control over the old Soviet Empire, reduce Europe to energy dependency, and shift the balance of world power in its favour.

He insists that the west should respond with the collective solidarity it showed in the old Cold War. It should break Russia’s gas monopoly in Europe, restrict access of Russian companies to the western capital market, stand firmly behind the small independent states even to the point of the former Soviet Union even to the point of NATO membership, and exclude Russia from western clubs like the G8 unless it accepts western ‘norms’. It must renew the ‘battle of values’ against the ‘authoritarian, xenophobic and distorted version of capitalism’ peddled by Russia’s rulers.

On the other side, consider the pamphlet ‘’Coalitions for the Future’, edited by Igor Yurgens, and compiled by a group of Russian experts said to be close to the President-elect. There is nothing here about ‘sovereign democracy’ or Russia’s destiny. The goal the authors set is the humdrum one of economic development – higher per capita incomes, reduced social, economic, and regional inequalities. The experts argue that the superficiality of economic reform under Putin is due to the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. Economic reform, they say, depends on political liberty. The ‘deep modernization’ of the Russian economy requires the rule of law, a competitive political process, a free media, and a vigorous civil society, because without these things the state will not be able to mobilise popular support for reform, or learn from its mistakes.

Which of these conjectures proves the most fruitful will depend in part on how far Medvedev can escape from Putin’s shadow. Putin’s role will remain absolutely essential in the first two years of Medvedev’s presidency –not to block reforms, but to protect them from the ‘siloviki’ – past and present members of the KGB/FSB, with whom Putin is connected, but Medvedev is not.

But how the Medvedev presidency develops will also depend on the west’s attitude. If it follows Lucas’s advice, the likelihood is that Russia will slip further into the xenophobic authoritarianism which Lucas identifies as its driving force. In fact, the Lucas strategy assumes that Russia is set on an anti-western course, from which it can be deflected only by a western ‘victory’ in the ‘new cold war’. This is to give the reformers in Russia no chance of success. It is also to doom Russia to permanent Latin American status in the global economy.

It would be far better to regard the new presidency as a chance for a fresh start. One of Russia’s biggest grievances has been the eastward expansion of NATO. It is crucial that the 2 April meeting of the NATO summit in Bucharest does not lead to invitations to Georgia or the Ukraine to join the alliance. The vital importance for American-Russian agreement on missile defence and reducing nuclear stockpiles should not be sacrificed to the symbolism of NATO expansion.

The new presidency also offers a new start in Anglo-Russian relations. Both sides should start talking to each other again about such matters as the reopening of the British Council offices, visa relaxation, and exchange of intelligence. Hitherto, Britain has insisted on the extradition of Lugovoi as a requirement for fresh talks. This is a mistake. If you want better relations you should always be prepared to talk. Concessions should be seen as the outcome, not the precondition, of negotiations.