Medvedev, the phantom president


The recent Putin-Medvedev announcement has made a lame duck of President Medvedev, who clearly no longer has any significant say in matters political or economic. But did he ever? Were Russians not just going along with the deception, as older children do to get presents from Santa Claus, in whom they no longer believe? Michael Baron uses an unusual business performance analysis method to consider the question.

Michael Baron
10 November 2011

In the light of Medvedev’s recent decision (not that anyone could seriously believe he made the decision on his own) not to run for the President’s office in 2012 to clear the way for Putin, his current legitimacy as a President is highly questionable. There appears to be a general consensus both in Russia and abroad that Medvedev is now nothing but a ‘lame duck’ and has no real influence on political or economic developments, because all the critical decisions are made by Putin. The official presidential election may still be some months away, but many people already regard Putin as the Tsar rather than the heir-apparent to the Russian throne, and few believe that Medvedev still makes any significant decisions. But did he ever?

Medvedev’s years of presidency are almost over, so it’s about time to start considering the impact of his rule on Russia’s political and economic infrastructure. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so the expectations after his election that Medvedev would swiftly steer Russia towards a better society and a stronger economy were clearly not realistic in the short term.

‘Project Medvedev’ is impossible to analyse and assess since it doesn’t exist and it never did!'

But some results of his presidency should surely be visible by now. History has seen all kinds of political leaders and not all of them have been inspirational enough to leave a lasting and memorable legacy. Furthermore, the negative impacts of these leaderships quite often outweighed the positive. However, it is hard to think of another contemporary leader of a large nation who managed to spend years making so much fuss and noise…while effectively doing nothing at all!

Project Medvedev

In university classes on Business Performance Analysis Methods, I sometimes ask my students to imagine themselves as ‘businesses’ with set goals.


Medvedev and Putin rarely appear in public together, but an opportunity presented itself recently when they travelled to Nizhny Novgorod for this year's celebrations of Russia's National Day of Unity.

They are required to:

1) identify 5 main goals they have been working to achieve over the past year;

2) explain the strategies and tactical patterns they have used to achieve the goals, and, last but not least,

3) establish whether the goals have been accomplished successfully and, if not, what the major obstacles were that prevented them achieving the desired outcomes.

The majority of the students appear to derive far greater enjoyment from treating themselves as ‘Projects’ and analysing their own deeds than from studying impressive, but far-removed, corporate giants. President Medvedev may be a frequent visitor to University campuses (even though his recent visit to students of the Journalism Faculty at Moscow University was a massive PR disaster), but should he visit Australia, I doubt he will have any desire to join my students for this performance analysis exercise. Why? Because, in my opinion, ‘Project Medvedev’ is impossible to analyse and assess since it doesn’t exist and it never did!

It’s not easy to identify the main themes of Medvedev’s presidency. Over these 4 years, he has talked about many good things that he believes in and claims to want to promote proactively: freedom is better than non-freedom, the instrumental role of innovation in building a better economy, fighting wide-spread corruption and reforming the dysfunctional Russian bureaucracy. However, his presidential activities failed to move beyond the ‘wishful thinking’ stage and none of his aspirations has been realised. The Russian bureaucracy is now more powerful than ever, corruption is growing day by day, the economy is highly dysfunctional and no distinct innovative practices have been successfully introduced (since the ‘grand plan’ of building Skolkovo aka the Russian version of the Silicon Valley is nothing but a lovely dream).

Does this make Medvedev an unsuccessful leader? Maybe not. Unsuccessful leaders may fail to convert their ideas and aspirations into tangible benefits for the people they govern, but they do at the very least try to do so! In the case of Medvedev, nothing at all is has been done. It’s not uncommon for macro-leaders to mismanage things completely, but doing absolutely nothing at all for 4 years is a truly unprecedented achievement!

The leader

On the other hand, Putin’s status as leader has seemingly remained unaffected by his loan of the formal presidency to Medvedev. For the Russian bureaucrats, Putin is the one to be feared and respected. Last year, after the Russian team’s appalling performance at the Winter Olympics, Medvedev appeared to be furious that the preparations and management had been so mishandled by the sporting officials. He called on Vitaly Mutko, the Russian Minister for Sport, to assume responsibility for the failure and to resign from his post. If the President asks a Minister to leave his job, that minister’s fate could justifiably be regarded as sealed. But, to everyone’s amazement, Mutko apparently didn’t even bother to respond to the President’s demands: he simply stated that Putin still had confidence in him and that he intended to continue in his job. That was enough to silence all his critics…including the President!

Even more recently, when Medvedev called on Kudrin (the Finance Minister) to resign, citing  ‘irrevocable differences’ and ‘unwarranted criticism,’ the minister replied that he didn’t mind resigning…but he was going to discuss the matter with Putin first! Such public incidents make it very clear that Putin has always been in absolute control of Russian political affairs and Medvedev was simply keeping the President’s chair warm for a while.

'For the Russian bureaucrats, Putin is the one to be feared and respected.'

To sum up, Medvedev never appeared to have any real influence on the way Russia has been governed, so his entire presidency has been nothing but a phantom. On Christmas Eve, children who are young and naïve enough to believe in Santa get their stockings ready for presents. Some of the older children may question the very existence of Santa but are still happy to go along with the idea, even if they sort of guess where the presents come from. Likewise, some Russians choose to believe in Medvedev, even though it’s easy to see that it’s Putin who decides what illusions and promises to fill their stockings with this time…

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