In the last few weeks there has been much speculation suggesting that Dmitri Medvedev, Vladimir Putin's hand-picked successor as President of the Russian Federation, may be showing signs of independence from his mentor. Having come to power promising to overcome Russia's "legal nihilism" there was some hope that his rule might provide a welcome contrast to the authoritarian slide of the Putin years. Set against that was the fact that Mr. Putin did not depart the political stage. He was promptly appointed as Prime Minister and it was widely assumed that he was the senior partner in the duopoly at the summit of the Moscow power vertical, as Russians somewhat opaquely refer to their increasingly authoritarian political power structure.
Three recent developments have fueled speculation that Medvedev may be inclined to act on his more liberal instincts. First, the President ordered the revision of a bill expanding the definition of the crime of treason that Putin had supported. Human rights activists and independent journalists in Russia had strongly opposed the bill. Medvedev's spokesman claimed that the President had heeded the opinions of the media and society and expressed concern that "the concepts of state secrets, high treason and spying could be construed too broadly."
After the brazen murder of a leading human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov and a young journalist, Anastasia Baburova in the center of Moscow on January 19, 2009 the Kremlin was silent. However on January 29, Medvedev called Dmitri Muratov, the editor of Baburova's newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, to a meeting where he expressed his "deepest sorrow and compassion" over the killings. Baburova was the fourth journalist associated with the newspaper to be killed in recent years and Markelov had often represented Novaya Gazeta journalists whose work had resulted in legal problems. This humane and compassionate response, which Muratov described as "absolutely sincere," contrasts with Putin's grudging and callous remarks about the murder of another Novaya Gazeta reporter, Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006. At that time, then President Putin expressed no regret over the killing and added insult to injury by stating that Politkovskaya's influence in Russia had been "extremely insignificant."
Most recently, on February 9, a close aide to Medvedev expressed the view that political liberalization might now be essential in Russia. Noting that the social contract whereby Russians accepted the limitation of political rights and freedoms in exchange for economic prosperity was breaking down, Igor Yurgens suggested that "when economic well-being is shrinking ... civil rights should expand." Time will tell how this trial balloon flies.
The science of Kremlinology remains notoriously inexact. Medvedev's softer words and conciliatory gestures may be a good cop/bad cop tactic orchestrated by Putin for his own purposes. Winston Churchill's famous analogy to "bulldogs fighting under a rug" to describe Russian politics remains apt.
Nonetheless, the test for President Medvedev's sincerity and capacity as a legal reformer will surely come in what he is able to do, rather than what he says. A good place for him to start would be in the investigation into the murder of Markelov and Baburova. The all too frequent contract style killings of independent journalists and other government critics in Russia normally pass with no one being held accountable. It would truly be a sign of something different in Moscow if this time, in addition to sympathetic words, there was to be a credible, thorough investigation leading to the identification of the perpetrator and those who ordered the crime.