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What will be Medvedev's answer?

The Russian president's first official visit to Berlin

02.06.2008 · By Mirela Isic

At the beginning of June new Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is expected to pay his first official visit to Berlin. After Steinmeier's five-day visit to Russia in the middle of May, much focus will be on how the new Russian President responds to the indirect questions Steinmeier posed, especially in his speech at the Ural State University in Yekaterinburg. Steinmeier said that Russia needs a "lively civil society and a lively entrepreneurial culture." Further, he promoted freedom of opinion and reliable rule of law structures. These ambitious tactics intend to promote Russia's modernization project.

Medvedev's answer to how he is going to deal with these "challenges" will depend on two premises. Firstly, his future acts are bound by Putin's inheritance; secondly, his powers of self-assertion will therefore depend on his interpretation of the "dual leadership" in the near future.

During his presidential term, Putin constructed a sphere of domination, which reconciled the connection of market-based merits and particular traditions like patriotism, a strong state identity, imperialism and post-empire thinking that have reinvigorated Russian self-esteem in a sense. This implicates proclaiming the slogans of a civil society, but domestically enacting settlements, which work in the opposite direction. An example is Russia's NGO law that originated within the Kremlin in 2005. It pushes more regulations and observation upon NGOs and ultimately hinders the establishment of new NGOs in Russia. A similar situation arises in the public arena of free opinion. It's not that there is no possibility to express free opinion in Russia. It depends on how far opinion concerns governmental issues and how popular ideas become. Since Putin has enforced political conformity within the Russian media, beside little radio stations like Echo Moskwy and the daily newspaper Nowaja Gazeta only independent online agencies and bloggers remain to offer free opinion. In the beginning of 2008, the Federation Council, Russia's upper house, debated a reorganisation of Internet-related legislation to achieve more control over the Russian online community. Russia establishes new laws without hesitation when the government feels essential state values are being hurt, but to call Russia a rule of law state would overstep the realms of possibility. In the estimation of German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, Russia is going to accelerate the progress of becoming a modern rule of law state. But the fact that Russia launches new laws from time to time and reworks old statutes does not mean a fundamental change in the long-established structures. The jurisdiction needs a radical reform in order to work more efficient and hence become more reliable in their decisions and more independent from the political leadership.

Merely the implementation of a lively entrepreneurial culture is within Russia's grasp. Under Putin's presidency, the country has experienced an economic revival. Although Putin shows the economic miracle as his success, it clearly derives from the worldwide rise in energy prices. Russia is a wealthy country, but not wealthy enough to just rise out of very real and existent economic problems. Medvedev will have to deal with an increasing rate of inflation, which on May 1st prompted Russians to demonstrate against bulging food prices. Further, he needs to reduce trade barriers in order to ease terms for foreign investors in Russia. The situation is complicated because one of the reasons for the high inflation rate is the strong offshore capital inflow. But what foreign investors strongly need to hold on investing in Russia is certainty of law. An example is the conflict with Lufthansa Cargo in October 2007 when Russia refused flyover rights to the German airline. Russia pretended that Lufthansa has not extended the required contracts, but the real reason for the éclat was that Lufthansa Cargo has had her hub in Kazakhstan and not as required from the Russian part in Siberia. This acting hit the headlines and provided political displeasure between Germany and Russia. Another economic difficulty is that a considerable proportion of the Russian GDP has its origin in the Energy exports. In case of an – granted unexpected but possible – fall of energy prices, this would hit the Russian economy to a great extent. In addition Russia faces rising problems with transit countries like Lithuania and Ukraine in conditions of transition and suffers from high transit power loss when delivering especially Gas to Europe. Thus, the regulation of capital markets and at the same time the preservation of Russia's current political and economic stability combined with new measures for modernization of obsolete branches of trade, will define Medvedev’s presidential term in a specific manner.

Medvedev's dealing with all these challenges will further depend on how far he will be able to vest his sphere of influence and his power position with real authority. The odd pairing of an inexperienced president and a strong prime minister is a new type of administration in the Russian polity. It has always been a tradition that the President is the strong man in the state and defines the way Russia is going to pursue. Emerging from the constitutional principles the political power is united in the President's figure, but due to Putin's great popularity and his arrangements to reinstall his own political role as prime minister equipped with all the necessary political clout (Putin has already highlighted the areas of social policy and economics he will assume as his domain), it won't be an easy task for Medvedev to maintain his ground as president. In Russia's "controlled democracy," the new president has to prove his ability to deal with Putin's legacy. Lately this has involved deciding whether to keep Putin, the ever powerful prime minister, in the background or to do what needs to be done to obtain the system of "hyperpresidentialism."

Medvedev's presidential term has just begun. The following months will reveal his true presidential endeavours. It seems logical if Medvedev concentrate on questions on which there is more agreement with the West, in particular Germany. Steinmeier spoke about Germany and the EU being natural partners in the modernization of Russia, especially in the energy sector and in energy efficiency. The EU General Affairs and Foreign Relations Council recently adopted a mandate to negotiate a new framework agreement between the EU and the Russian Federation. Russia aspires to gain better market access to Europe, the change of visa regulations and a closer educational and scientific cooperation. Germany's hopes lie in the improvement of the energy security and the opening of new markets for German investors in the region. Medvedev can also bargain for help from Germany in the areas of social, health and education policy. With the announcement of the Russian Ministry for Economic Development and Trade in May 2008 to increase the state expenses for research and development, education and health care, the Russian government again showed its commitment to these areas. But also in the field of current foreign policy issues like the defiance of the arms control or the entrance of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, will Medvedev and not Putin be, as president, the person to whom the West will turn. He holds the responsibility for formulating foreign policy goals. At the moment, one can only assume what Medvedev’s goals will be.

Summarized, the new Russian president applied himself to a monumental task: the modernization of Russia. Therefore his first strategic objectives are to secure the current economic upturn, to bolster the middle class (which seems not to benefit from the economic vitality adequately) and to reform the Russian jurisdiction in order to provide certainty of law for foreign investors as well as for the own population. Beyond Medvedev needs to refresh the diplomatic relationships with the EU and at a definite time with the US. The change of leadership in the US is a chance for Medvedev to revive the Russia-US relations trying to become more closely linked with the new US-President than Putin have ever been with George W. Bush. It is going to be deciding if Medvedev finds an answer to controversial issues like the build-up of the missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic for example. Whether his dealing will be a process of emancipation from Putin’s policies, it remains to be seen.

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