Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in Wednesday as the president of Russia. Many reports have stated that this is his first elected office, an ignorant portrayal at best. The March 2 presidential election was widely recognized as a fraudulent charade. The presidency was assigned to Medvedev, in the same way he gained his previous titles -- as outgoing President Vladimir V. Putin’s campaign manager, chief of staff and deputy prime minister. After the ceremony, Medvedev returned the favor and made Putin prime minister.
Putin has balked when asked if he would follow the tradition of government officials hanging the sitting president’s portrait in their offices. But the joke going around is that he will indeed have one: a portrait of Medvedev in the president’s office looking at a portrait of Putin.
According to the Russian Constitution, Medvedev is now in charge. But until there is evidence of his independence and authority, it is safe to assume that Medvedev still needs Putin’s permission to use the Kremlin lavatory. The real “smooth transition of power” was moving Putin from the presidency to prime minister.
We can expect a few proclamations and perhaps even token policy changes. Unfortunately, the early signs show that Medvedev’s statement about developing civil freedoms and ending “legal nihilism” were only a show for the West. Such displays are needed to offset elections with the results known in advance, lack of media freedom and business growth that only benefits Kremlin loyalists. Otherwise, Putin’s gang of oligarchs might lose easy access to billions in looted assets held in the West. So far, though, as Putin learned over the last eight years, there is no such danger. Russia pretends to be a democracy, and the United States and the European Union pretend to believe Russia is a democracy.
That morally repugnant pact is not working so well for those of us fighting for real democracy here. The day before Medvedev took power, several dozen people were arrested simply for being in the general area of a planned rally that had already been canceled. The police had promised that no one would be detained if the rally was called off; apparently they did not receive Medvedev’s message about civil freedoms in time.
Oleg Kozlovsky, a member of the Other Russia opposition coalition leadership, was given 13 days in prison. Arrest reports for him came from two officers, each giving a different time and place of arrest. According to the judge, this curious fact “was not related to the case.” A photojournalist working for the Russian paper Izvestia was sentenced to six days in prison for trying to do his job.
It is essential to resist the temptation to give this new/old Kremlin regime the benefit of the doubt. Let us not pretend Medvedev was truly elected or that we know anything about him. Far more is known about Barack Obama’s former pastor. Medvedev is tainted from the start by his membership in Putin’s dictatorial Kremlin regime. Action, not words, will establish whether he is his own man.
For that action to be meaningful, Medvedev must give immediate attention to these issues: He must free the long list of political prisoners who were jailed as Putin developed his dictatorship by KGB cronyism. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other members of the Yukos Oil Co. management are the most prominent names, but there are also scientists convicted on spurious espionage charges and activists whose only crime was speaking out against the Kremlin. And the new president must act against the wave of hate crimes that have claimed 40 lives this year, mostly immigrants or nonwhite Russians. Homicidal neo-Nazi gangs roam the streets while pro-democracy marchers are locked up.
The basic human right of thinking and speaking one’s mind has been drastically curtailed in Russia over the last eight years. The real test of Medvedev’s presidency will be the way in which he deals with his most vocal critics. Other Russia is planning to hold a national assembly on May 17 in Moscow to facilitate dialogue on the most relevant problems and to determine a national agenda by bringing together representatives of diverse social forces, including those with opposite interests. We will also continue our street protests across Russia.
Will our activists still be harassed and detained for handing out pamphlets? Will our people still be followed by the security services? Will our peaceful actions again be violently dispersed by police? Will we again be denied access to legal counsel after being arrested? Will the courts continue to rubber-stamp our prosecutions? Until we have the answers to those questions, there is no reason to take Medvedev’s word about anything.