How you can tell if Dmitri Medvedev still has any power in Moscow

November 5, 2012

(Hoang Dinh Nam -- AFP/Getty Images)

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has publicly announced that the two still-imprisoned members of performance art group Pussy Riot should be freed. The women, convicted of hooliganism for storming a church stage and singing a song against Russian President Vladimir Putin, are serving time in a dismal penal colony.

Ever since Putin reassumed the presidency in May, many Russia watchers have wondered at the degree to which Medvedev still retains power and influence from behind Putin's shadow. Thought of as more Western-facing and less authoritarian than Putin, Medvedev served as president between Putin's second and third presidential terms, which also allowed Putin to get around the country's term limit. The dynamic between the two leaders can be difficult to judge, though it's typically assumed that Putin is the real authority.

The sentencing of this dissident performance art group has served as an interesting test case for judging the Putin-Medvedev power arrangement. In August, Putin called for leniency in the case, telling reporters, "I don't think they should be judged too severely for this." Sure enough, one of the three defendants were freed on appeal, and the other two were given two-year sentences, a difficult sentence but perhaps not a severe one in Russian terms.

Now that Medvedev is weighing in publicly on the case, it will be interesting to see if his wishes for the women to be free end up coming true. If they do, it will suggest that he can still exercise top-down, Russian-style authority over his country. ("People follow the instructions they are given from the top," as the husband of one of the imprisoned women told reporters.) If they stay in jail, that will be a telling and very public indication of Medvedev's relevance to Russian politics.

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Max Fisher | November 5, 2012