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Medvedev's Challenges in Governing Putin's Russia: What a New American President Should Know

"Given that Vladimir Putin hasn't had a Duma that has been opposed to him, that many of the issues of the 1990s have been resolved, and that he has governed in much calmer times than Boris Yeltsin, has he actually governed any better than Yeltsin did?" asked Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Associate Director for Research and Senior Research Scholar, Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Stanford University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute. Stoner-Weiss answered in the negative, and at a 24 November Kennan Institute lecture, she explained why both Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev and United States President-elect Barack Obama should consider this as they move forward.

Since his accession to the Russian presidency, Medvedev has continually and unambiguously emphasized that his tenure will be one of stability and continuity with his predecessor. According to Stoner-Weiss, Medvedev's desire to convey such a message has to do with the accepted wisdom about the Putin era—gleaned from its comparison with the more democratic yet economically disastrous Yeltsin era—that Putin's more authoritarian style of governance has created the stability needed for Russia's recent national prosperity.

Stoner-Weiss argued, however, that the connection between Putin's "soft-authoritarianism" and the economic growth experienced by Russia in the last decade is tenuous, as is the connection between democracy and impoverishment. In the 1990s, all post-communist countries, including Russia, saw a decline and then a recovery, Stoner-Weiss pointed out. Stoner-Weiss underscored the fact that Russia's own recovery began, by conservative measures, in 1998, two years before Putin became acting president. "Stability after a revolutionary period like the 1990s was inevitable," she said, "and the causes of economic growth were completely independent of regime change." The fact that Russia possessed the additional advantage of rising oil prices, and yet still did not recover as quickly as other post-communist countries that did not, she noted, actually suggests a relationship between authoritarianism and economic growth contrary to the one conventionally accepted by Russians today.

According to Stoner-Weiss, Putin is happy to attribute the economic growth during his administration to the "order" that he installed, as he himself has called it. Establishing such "order" has consisted of tightening control over media, constraining civil society with weighty bureaucracy and even suppression, reigning in Russia's regional leaders, weakening the Duma, and rendering elections meaningless. "It is hard to see how shutting down media, appointing governors and removing accountability, or eliminating the opposition actually produced growth," said Stoner-Weiss. If anything, she argued, Putin's style of governance hurt Russia by creating more opportunity for corruption.

Unlike Yeltsin, Stoner-Weiss noted, Putin has governed Russia with a compliant Duma, and during a period where world oil prices have exceeded $150 per barrel. Instead of using such advantages to effectively address many of the unsolved problems of the 1990s, Stoner-Weiss suggested that Russia's high economic growth rate—which has been between six percent and eight percent since 1998—has allowed Putin to ignore these issues. "The causes of poor governance under Yelstin, such as a weak institutional framework and weak rule of law, persist," she stated. "Mr. Putin has largely glossed over them in good times, but now Mr. Medvedev is facing not so good times economically, making all of these things very relevant again."

As this situation demonstrates, Stoner-Weiss noted, conditions have changed so that Medvedev may not be able to maintain Putin's soft-authoritarian course and effectively deal with the major challenges that lie before him. In the context of great public expectations, Medvedev is now charged with keeping the economy growing in increasingly hard times and maintaining a balance of power among potentially feuding elites within the new conditions of scarcity. Medvedev must do all of this while not being perceived as ruining Putin's legacy of growth. Under the new financial circumstances, the continuation of autocracy may become an impediment to further growth. Many of the goals that Medvedev has set out for his administration—rebalancing institutions, rebuilding infrastructure, tightening investment, and creating an innovation economy—would help the economy but are incompatible with the current course.

This situation, Stoner-Weiss concluded, provides the U.S. with an opportunity to reconsider how it engages Russia. The new U.S. administration must realize that it is dealing with a new Russia with new interests, she stated. "Russia may still be the only country on earth that can deliver a nuclear missile to Washington, D.C. in less than 30 minutes," said Stoner-Weiss, "but their primary interests now lie in building themselves up as a global economic power through investment, growth, and diversifying their economy." This gives the U.S. leverage since foreign investment in Russia has not increased under the current autocratic system, she emphasized. As such, Stoner-Weiss encouraged President-elect Obama to remind Medvedev of the facts presented here: democracy did not cause Russia's problems in the 1990s and autocracy did not solve those problems under Putin. "Medvedev shouldn't think that loosening up the political system is going to be worse for the Russian economy," she concluded, "it could be better."

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Sarah Dixon Klump

Editorial Assistant
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more