The Democratic Roots Of Putin's Choice

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin in October.
Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin in October. (By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)
By Andreas Umland
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Under Dmitry Medvedev, whom Vladimir Putin nominated yesterday as his preferred candidate to succeed him as president, Russia might have a serious chance to embark anew on a course of political liberalization and democratization. His selection may also provide an opportunity for Western governments and organizations to improve relations with Moscow.

Assessments of Medvedev, 42, have often focused on the link between his career and Putin's in the 1990s. Russian media have been hailing the deputy prime minister as an enlightened lawyer and representative of a younger generation. His foreign policy preferences are pro-European, if not pro-Western.

But Medvedev was a democratic activist and politician even before he met Putin, at a time when the latter was still serving in the KGB in East Germany. In 1988, Medvedev joined the team of famous Russian democrat Anatoly Sobchak and was the de facto head of Sobchak's campaign for mayor of St. Petersburg. Medvedev was a graduate student then and lecturer on legal studies at St. Petersburg State University, where Sobchak worked as a law professor.

Putin also studied at St. Petersburg University, yet he entered the KGB after graduation. He began his political career only later, after he was seconded by the KGB to his alma mater in 1990, and he reestablished his acquaintance with his former teacher Sobchak then.

In contrast to Putin, who was not a member of the Soviet Union's democratic movement of the late 1980s, Sobchak and Medvedev were among those who risked their careers (if not more) in 1988 by publicly criticizing Stalinism and supporting Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. Putin joined Sobchak's team only after Sobchak was elected mayor of St. Petersburg. Medvedev, however, can be considered a member of the movement that brought down Soviet one-party rule.

So Medvedev's rise is good news for relations between Russia and the West. Yet it could also complicate Russia's domestic development and foreign policies. Western leaders will have to be prudent about supporting pro-democratic changes initiated by Medvedev while not undermining his authority in Russia. Russian public opinion and especially the discourse of Moscow's elite have become so anti-Western, and particularly anti-American, that demonstrative support by the West weakens rather than strengthens politicians here.

Andreas Umland, a former visiting fellow at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, is a lecturer at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kiev. He compiles an online discussion, "The Russian Nationalism Bulletin" (

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