Politics & Policy

Whither Russia?

An expert assesses Putin, Medvedev, and Russia’s shaky democracy.

John Dunlop is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an expert on Russian domestic politics, Russian nationalism, and the decline of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, he was an election monitor in a number of former Eastern Bloc countries transitioning to democracy.

In a recent sit-down at a coffee shop on the campus of Stanford University, National Review Online’s Daniel Foster spoke with Dunlop about the end of the failed Medvedev experiment and the return of Vladimir Putin. The conversation also covered the dynamics of Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, “Putin’s Karl Rove,” his Sovietesque imperial ambitions, and what passes for democracy in the increasingly corrupt and totalitarian Russian Federation.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second half of this conversation.


DANIEL FOSTER: You were writing and producing work in the transitional period between the Soviet era and the Russian Federation. Can you compare the quality of liberal and democratic institutions in the emerging Russian federation in the early 1990s and in Russia now? Has it gotten better, worse?

JOHN DUNLOP: I think if you’re talking about elections, there is no question they have gotten worse. I don’t have any doubts about that, because the [Russian] elections I monitored in 1995 and 1996, while there were some significant problems, nevertheless, there was a large degree of freedom, and there’s no question that the people were able to express their will in the election — although we had questions about, for example, Yeltsin using his control over television, and a few other things. But compared to what we have today, it was freedom itself.



FOSTER: So how did Putin happen, the first time around? Can you tell that story?

DUNLOP: Well, the short answer is that Putin was placed in his job by Yeltsin. He wanted someone to protect his family and his reputation, and he also had very serious concerns, even fears, about what would happen if [early Putin opponents and Fatherland–All Russia faction leaders Yuri] Luzhkov and [Yevgeny] Primakov came to power in the 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential elections. Putin was part of Yeltsin’s team, and in 1998, Yeltsin made Putin head of the FSB [the Russian domestic security agency]. And he also handled other jobs for Yeltsin — at one point, he oversaw regional politics, and so on. We know from what Yeltsin said — and from what’s in his three volumes of memoirs, and from what Yeltsin’s daughter has said in a number of statements — that he had very high regard for Putin as a very efficient person, who was completely dedicated to him and to the office.

So, that’s the answer. Putin was placed in charge by Yeltsin. Later on, [Yeltsin] stated some regrets about what he’d done, but it was too late.


FOSTER: Well that’s what I’m interested in. Was it inevitable that when Putin came to power, he was going to assert this very totalitarian grip, or did it just happen? It’s a difficult question to answer, but you suggested Yeltsin almost didn’t know what he was doing.

DUNLOP: No, I think Yeltsin did not want, or at least he said he did not want, what happened to happen. On the other hand, he didn’t have foreknowledge of it. Of course, Putin had his own plan, as it were, and he did put it into effect gradually. In other words, Putin’s first term, which was from 2000 to 2004, was much more moderate in many ways than his second term, and then the interregnum, which we have now, in which he is still the main figure. And presumably his next two presidential terms will be even more authoritarian. At least it looks that way to me. But originally he had, for example, a quite liberal prime minister, [Mikhail] Kasyanov, who’s now one of the leaders of an opposition group. And there were other figures who could be considered moderates. But basically Putin was feeling his way, and also gaining confidence. And he is a very effective leader. There’s no question. He’s a good infighter, a good intriguer, and so from the second term he was sort of mired in increasing authoritarianism.


FOSTER: Let me ask you the analogue question for this decade. After Putin decided to make a symbolic transfer of power to Medvedev, there were high hopes among Western observers about the prospects for Medvedev. How did Medvedev’s presidency play out in terms of promises kept, in terms of distancing himself from Putin?

DUNLOP: Well, it’s a very complicated story. The Russian constitution says only that no one can serve more than two presidential terms in a row. You can serve an infinite number of terms, but only two terms in a row. So, Putin needed someone to fill this hiatus between his second and third term. True, since he was prime minister, he could have asked Medvedev to leave after several days and so on, but I think quite wisely Putin didn’t want to brawl. And so he picked an individual he knew very well. They had worked together for a number of years. He understood that Medvedev was not a strong personality, and he would do more or less what Putin wanted. So, I would say the tandem arrangement actually worked very well from Putin’s perspective, although there were glitches.

#ad#What Medvedev’s intentions were — did he seriously think he could become the stronger of the two and so on? — that’s grounds for a great debate. But I think Medvedev had hopes that Putin would ask him, or allow him to stay on for the next term. Why he stepped down, there are different theories about that. One political [scientist], named [Gleb Olegovich] Pavlovski, has said basically Medvedev was forced out using blackmail and threats. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what one of the best-known commentators in Russia has said.



FOSTER: So what’s your view on when the Western reports make a big deal about public disagreement between the two: Medvedev says X about topic Y, and that contradicts something Putin said. How legitimate were those distinctions? Did Medvedev ask for permission? Were even their disagreements coordinated?

DUNLOP: Many people think it was good cop, bad cop. And that the two leaders were playing to different constituencies: Medvedev playing to the better educated, technologically educated, Twitter class, as it were, and Putin playing to the power ministries, to elderly people, to the more conservative spectrum of the electorate. I think there’s some truth in that. That was definitely going on. The two of them used to meet together, and so on. But it could be that Medvedev at some point had some hopes, which were dashed. I can’t really be definitive about that because I don’t know.


FOSTER: So you think it was in Medvedev’s power and potentially his will to declare for a second term? That’s something that could have happened, in other words?

DUNLOP: Oh yes! Absolutely. I don’t have any doubts about that, but when push came to shove . . . 



FOSTER: He wasn’t so much a creature of Putin that he was never going to try and strike out on his own?

DUNLOP: Right now it looks like he was a creature of Putin all along, because he agreed to step down. But many Western governments, in my opinion, were banking on Medvedev staying on, for two reasons. One, that allowed them to mask the true nature of the regime, in which Putin was the dominating figure. They could say, “No, no. It’s this young guy, Medvedev, who’s progressive,” and so on. And two, to give them a little credit, they also thought that gradually Medvedev would be able to assume more and more power and to slot more and more of his own people in. Unfortunately, those plans turned out to be a fantasy. It didn’t work out.

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

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