It’s been a long time since foreign leaders arrived on our shores saying that America is the future—so long, in fact, that when it does happen, we don’t know what to make of it. For me this was the most interesting subtext of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev’s visit to the States last month. He and Barack Obama had a familiar discussion of shared national interests, from arms control to ethnic peace in Kyrgyzstan. Their lunch outing to an Arlington burger joint reflected the search for good visuals that we often see when a summit itself isn’t generating much real news. And in his side-trip to Silicon Valley Medvedev was doing exactly what most visiting politicians try to do—pitch their country to American CEOs as a good place to invest.
All very predictable, except for Medvedev's explanation of why he had come to California in the first place—not to sell something but to learn. “Modernization” and “innovation” are his watchwords back home, and he’s starting up a center for advanced research outside of Moscow. Goals like these, Medvedev gushed to a Stanford audience, made his visit to Silicon Valley a must. “I wanted to see with my own eyes the origin of success, to see how innovative high-tech enterprises are born.”
Now the president of Russia has gotten a reputation as a big talker who doesn’t always deliver. And he may not even be president two years from now, if his old pal and patron (and now prime minister) Vladimir Putin wants the job back. All the same, it’s worth paying close attention to what Medvedev is saying, because he is defying the conventions of Russian politics. For twenty years, wanting to be like the West has been a guarantee of utter electoral irrelevance. Once you were tarred with the Western-groupie brush, you didn’t recover.
Everybody in the business is supposed to understand this, not least because Putin made it a central theme of his second term as president, before turning things over to Medvedev. Russia, he said, no longer had to take lessons or accept criticism from the West. One of his advisers came up with a slogan—“sovereign democracy”—to express this idea, but Putin put the point more crudely. Anyone who judged Russia by Western ideas of progress had, he suggested, been to too many European embassy cocktail parties.
Putin has not abandoned his exceptionalist themes just because Medvedev uses different ones. When somebody criticizes what’s happening in Russia, the prime minister’s go-to defense is that things are even worse elsewhere. He advises his domestic opponents to stop bad-mouthing their own country. And he does it with genuine polemical flair.
Take his performance at a recent luncheon with members of the St. Petersburg arts crowd. They were whining to him about plans to build a huge eyesore of an office tower as the headquarters of Gazprom, the state natural-gas monopoly. Did Putin respond to these complaints, which were laced with familiar comments about unresponsive bureaucrats and official corruption, by promising to look into the matter? Did he call for transparency in making such decisions, so that all viewpoints could be heard?
No way. As he saw it, his questioners were once again assuming that Russia compares badly with the West. Putin wanted to smack that idea down hard, this time by pointing out that democratic countries can still produce ugly public architecture. After all, he asked (and whatever one thinks of the guy, there’s no denying that this was a world-class zinger), “How was the Pompidou Center built?” He then took a second whack at the French. “What’s in the middle of the Louvre?” he demanded. (The Petersburg intellectuals were not about to defend I.M Pei’s glass pyramid. One of them even called out, “Something really horrible!”)
Medvedev, meanwhile, still hasn’t gotten the memo that belittling the West is good politics. In his Stanford speech, he made an obligatory nod to Putinism, saying that Russia would develop democracy “on our own without external supervision.” But he also took a swipe at Putin’s mindset and the dead-end it leads to. “Resentment,” he said, “is a path to isolation.” His foreign policy statements routinely include disparaging references to “paranoia.”
Since returning from the States, Medvedev has kept coming back to these themes, starting with a session at the foreign ministry in which he informed senior diplomats that strengthening democracy at home is now a core national security goal. Last week, he told a meeting of judges that foreign criticism of Russia’s judicial system should be assessed on its merits–“calmly, but with attention.”
Medvedev can get a little micro-managerial on all this. One way to increase the authority of the law, he suggested to the judges, was to spruce up court buildings. “Find me a foreign court that looks bad, that is in really poor condition–there aren’t any. I mean, not in developed states.” And he speaks of Russia’s notoriously corrupt traffic police in the same (not totally convincing) way. In Europe, he said recently, “no law-abiding citizen” would try to bribe a cop. (It’s important to see the limits of his attitude, too. At the end of Angela Merkel’s July 15 visit, when foreign reporters asked Medvedev about a controversial new law expanding the powers of the FSB—the successor to the old KGB—he insisted the bill was an “internal” matter.)
In Russian politics, Mevedev has come to stand for ineffectual high-mindedness. If the past is any guide, all his talk about America as a model will only compound his image problem. In this light, his chances of serving a second term don’t look too good.
And yet it’s just possible that the president of Russia understands the current political moment better than we do. He seems to have concluded that the old formulas are played out, and that the country needs–even wants–something new. Putin has assumed that a Russia that was back on its feet would be comfortable standing apart from the West. Medvedev’s message, by contrast, is that Russia should feel comfortable joining in–and, even more, trying to measure up. He’s gambling that America, and politicians who want to learn from America, can seem cool again.
When foreign political leaders say things that we don’t immediately understand, Americans often shrug them off as intended for domestic consumption. In Medvedev’s case, that would be the most encouraging interpretation of all.