Culture of Crackdown


There’s been talk in major media outlets – Forbes, The Washington Post , and others – of a growing rift between Medevev and Putin. They’re just partially right – it’s not a rift between Medvedev and Putin; it’s a rift between Medvedev and the bulk of the Russian Federation’s government, which happens to include Putin.  


Dmitri Medvedev is the rare Russian official who believes in honest-to-goodness democracy.

“Smooth, broadly liberal, and pro-Western,”  as the Financial Times put it in December 2007, with a further quote from a liberal-leaning Kremlin official that “The liberal wing supports him. He has the right kind of views on democracy, on freedom of the press, on the market.”


Medvedev’s freedom-friendly reputation preceded him at the Washington Post as well, whose guest columnist Andreas Ulmand wrote that “Medvedev was a democratic activist and politician even before he met Putin, at a time when the latter was still serving in the KGB.”

Ulmand cited as evidence Medvedev’s 1988 spearheading of law professor Anatoly Subchak campaign to be the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg; and Medvedev’s public statements at the time against Stalinism and for perestroika.


Ulmand should be very pleased with Medevev’s peformance in the last few weeks:

  • On Feb. 5, 2009, Medvedev blocked Putin’s order to fire Andrei Nikolayev, head of internal affairs in Primorye. Putin had wanted Nikolayev pink-slipped because Nikolayev wouldn’t dispel mass protests, centered in the Primorye city of Vladivostok, that had arrayed against a federal tariff on imported cars.
  • On January 27, 2009, Medvedev ordered a rewriting of a bill by Putin that would have outlawed many forms of nonviolent criticism of the government.
  • Also on Jan. 27, 2009, Medvedev met with Dmitri Muratov, editor of the newspaper Gazeta, and Mikhail Gorbachev, Gazeta stakeholder, to express his condolances for the murder of Gazeta reporter Anastasia Baburova. Baburova had been gunned down, along with human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, in central Moscow upon leaving a press conference that Markelov had just given.

The last action comes with a silver lining, however – Medvedev refuses to make any public condemnation of the Baburova-Markelov murders, supposedly for fear of “hampering the investigation.” Privately sympathetic but publicly milquetoast?  


Don’t be too surprised. Or too hard on Medvedev. He is swimming against a tide. The vast majority of Russian officialdom does not share his appreciation for civil liberties or checks on government power. The antidemocratic mindset runs deep thoughout the machinations of Russian government, at the local and the federal levels both. Events elsewhere in the same last few weeks prove as much:

  • On Feb. 12, 2009, a Nizhny Novgorod elementary school barred teacher Yekaterina Bunicheva from any further teaching duties on account of her arrest and five-day detainment by police. The police had accosted her outside a United Russia Party (Putin’s people) rally that she had planned to enter with a banner that read “Enough of Putin.” The school principal is himself a United Russia member – coincidence? I think nyet.
  • On Feb. 9, 2009, seven people were arrested for laying flowers on the spot where Baburov and Markelov had been gunned down. Authorities called their homage an “unauthorized demonstration.”
  • From Feb. 4-8, 2009, demonstrations by journalists erupted in several cities across Russia in response to the federal postal service’s suspension of delivery of newspaper Tambovsky Meridian on account of the Tambovsky Meridian’s publishing a story that questioned a bill to raise pensions for the Tambov oblast adminsitration and regional duma.
  • On Feb. 3, 2009, Yuri Grachev, editor of Solnechogorsky Forum–the only opposition newspaper in Solnechogorsky–was beaten nearly to death in a Moscow suburb.
  • On Feb. 2, 2009, Valery Gribakin, interior ministry spokesman, took note of the many opposition journalists in Russia who have been killed or almost killed and issued this bizarre statement about them: “Most murders of journalists in recent years are not linked to their work. When murder victims turn out to work for the media, their colleagues rush to the conclusion that their work is the main reason for their death. But, more often, they are sex cases.”                                          

Putin takes a lot of blame for Russia’s drift away from liberal democracy over the past 10 years. But it’s clear that the problem is a lot bigger than Putin. If so, then the antidote will have to be a lot bigger than Medvedev.  


One Response to “Culture of Crackdown”

  1. Colin Says:

    This is a great article – keep up the good work! In a mess of biased, terrible blogs about Russian political issues, yours is well worth bookmarking, Rick.

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