Why a brief moment of hope for a more open Russia, embodied by the country's former president, faded.
Does anybody remember Skolkovo? What seems like eons ago, back when iPads were still must-have gadgets for the Russian elite, the scientific and technological center was the showcase project in Dmitry Medvedev's efforts to modernize the country's economy to make it less dependent on oil and gas. Well Skolkovo is back in the news, but probably not for reasons Medvedev welcomes. The Investigative Committee announced this week that it was launching a probe into the alleged embezzlement of nearly 24 million rubles ($797,000) at the center.
How about Nikita Belykh? Does that name ring a bell? Back in 2008, months after assuming the presidency, Medvedev caused a minor sensation when he appointed the onetime opposition figure as governor of Kirov Oblast. The surprise move was part of a Kremlin strategy at the time to bring some elements of the opposition in from the cold and establish at least the appearance of a more pluralistic system. Belykh's term is up this year and he has indicated he would like to stay on. But don't bet the house on that happening. President Vladimir Putin won't even meet with him.
And late last month, Investigative Committee agents searched his offices and interrogated him over alleged improprieties in the privatization of a local distillery -- a case tied to the Kremlin's ongoing efforts to prosecute anticorruption blogger and opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.
The back-to-back assaults on Belykh and Skolkovo represent hits on two key pillars of "Medvedevism," a short-lived and ultimately half-hearted effort to diversify the Russian economy and introduce a degree of managed pluralism into the political system.
The attacks are the strongest indication yet that President Vladimir Putin is determined to not only eradicate any traces of Medvedevism, but to utterly humiliate Medvedev himself and discredit the legacy of his entire interim presidency.
"Putin was not very pleased with his experiment involving his successor, who overtly started playing games, building his own political coalition, and criticizing the national leader himself," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote recently in Politcom.ru.
"By initiating a political thaw Medvedev created the social basis for the protests that erupted in December 2011 ... Medvedev's presidency smashed the inertia of the Putin regime and against this backdrop the current president is reinstating [repressive] mechanisms and eradicating Medvedev's 'green shoots.' The overturning of Medvedev's decisions, the stalling of his projects, the criticism in the media, and the discrediting films are all links in the same chain -- the process of politically destroying Medvedev."
It may be just a matter of time before the pro-Kremlin media accuses Medvedev of "hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions, and hasty decisions and actions divorced from reality," as Soviet Communist Party mouthpiece Pravda wrote of Nikita Khrushchev following his ouster in 1964.
The steady dismantling of Medvedev's thaw, of course, has been building since Putin returned to the Kremlin last spring. Since then, we've had the Pussy Riot trial, the so-called "Bolotnaya case" against demonstrators who took to the streets on the eve of Putin's inauguration, the ramped up efforts to prosecute Navalny and Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, the rolling back of tepid political reforms on the election of governors, and the taming of the "systemic opposition" in the State Duma.
"The revision of Medvedev's legacy began virtually from the moment of the announcement of Vladimir Putin's future return to the presidency," Stanovaya wrote. "Now it already seems that Medvedev's presidency was a different era. The atmosphere in the country has changed so rapidly and fundamentally. The regime has become tougher. Political power has reverted to the 'Putinites.' The siloviki have acquired a second wind. Traditionalists and conservatives have started to win moral and political victories over the remnants of the liberals in the regime."
The powerful security service veterans in the Kremlin, many of whom are closely linked to the energy industry, staunchly opposed Medvedev's modernization efforts as well as the liberal experiment to allow for some managed pluralism in the political system. And now they are getting their revenge. But as Gazeta.ru wrote in a recent editorial, "When people get involved in vengeance, they do not weigh up the political costs very well."
The trap here is that in dismantling Medvedevism and all its remnants, Putin and his political managers are dealing with symptoms and not even coming close to addressing the underlying cause of the systemic crisis gripping the elite.
The Medvedev thaw, tepid as it was, didn't appear out of thin air. And it had very little to do with Medvedev himself -- he was just its iPod-toting front man, and a clumsy one at that. It happened because the more savvy minds in the Kremlin grasped -- correctly -- that Russia was changing and the way it was governed needed to evolve as well. They understood that the economy was, and remains, dangerously dependent on commodities, dooming it to an endless cycle of boom and bust as energy prices fluctuate. They understood that diversifying and decentralizing the economy would inevitably lead to new centers of political power and the need for some semblance of greater pluralism.
And they understood that Russian society was developing rapidly and becoming more differentiated and sophisticated as the prosperity of Putin's first term trickled down and spread. Such a society cannot be governed effectively in the paternalistic fashion that characterized Putin's 2000-08 rule. But those pushing for this path -- Arkady Dvorkovich, Vladislav Surkov, Igor Yurgens, and Gleb Pavlovsky -- to name a few, lost the argument and are no longer in the Kremlin (although some have migrated over to the government with Medvedev).
Putin's political strategy is now dominated by people like Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin, who believe the mounting restlessness in society and disquiet in the elite can be pounded into submission. Perhaps it can in the short term. But the underlying causes of the current political crisis aren't going away.
"Discontent is going to grow everywhere, either rapidly or more slowly. The forward-leaning section of Muscovites were only the first people to express it," Gazeta.ru opined in its editorial. "Defending a system that has run out of steam is a hopeless cause. And senseless repressions that compromise the regime only deepen the systemic crisis."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.