Russian President Vladimir Putin is turning back the clock on his predecessor’s reforms — literally.
This week, Putin signaled his intent to reverse one of the few high-profile reforms Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev enacted while president: Keeping Russia stuck in summer time all year after clocks sprang forward in March. It’s perhaps an apt symbol of Putin’s relentless drive to roll back even the modest liberal legacy left behind by his protege, who made timid attempts at modernization as president, but never emerged from the shadow of his patron — and meekly agreed to step down to let him reclaim the top job.
One by one, each of Medvedev’s reforms — from decriminalizing slander to purging the boards of state-run companies of government officials — has been swept aside. Observers see it as part of a new tough course taken by Putin in response to massive winter protests against his rule, an indication that he sees no need for a compromise with the opposition.
Suspicions are also rife that Putin may even be gearing up to dump Medvedev, his longtime political partner, as prime minister.
Nobody believed that Medvedev would really be in charge when he took over as president in 2008, while Putin moved into the prime minister’s seat to observe a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.
However, he led many to believe that he may at least soften Putin’s autocratic ways, especially when he proclaimed in a speech that “freedom is better than non-freedom.” He heartened many by promising to allow greater political competition, champion media freedoms, liberalize the economy and fight graft.
In the end, he fulfilled few of these pledges, leaving the tightly controlled political system largely intact, while Putin made it abundantly clear that he remained Russia’s paramount leader. A year ago, Medvedev showed unswerving loyalty to Putin when he refused to seek a second presidential term and agreed to swap jobs.
Medvedev now sees himself sinking further into irrelevance.
The latest blow came with Putin’s comments on his protege’s time switch initiative, which had angered many Russians because it meant they would have to trudge to work in pitch darkness during the nation’s long winter. Medvedev had argued that keeping clocks on summer time helped farmers.
Putin said on Tuesday that Medvedev “isn’t fixed on his decision” — a comment that appears to signal that the measure is doomed.
A humiliating revision of his own move would further erode Medvedev’s popularity, making it easier for Putin to sack him in the future if he decides to do so. A recent poll by the VTsIOM opinion research center showed Medvedev’s approval rating dropping to just over 20 percent this month, half of the level during his presidency. The same poll showed Putin’s approval rating staying stable at around 50 percent.
In one sign of fraying ties in the leadership duo, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week when asked about claims that some members of Putin’s inner circle held Medvedev responsible for the explosion of anti-Kremlin protests over the winter that “it’s not a secret that during Medvedev’s presidency some mistakes were made.”
Last winter’s protests, which drew more than 100,000 people demanding an end to Putin’s role into the frigid streets of Moscow, were the biggest Russia saw since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.