Today's date:
Summer 2008

Putin Stays Put

Garry Kasparov is a leader of The Other Russia coalition ( He is a former world chess champion and resides in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Moscow — On May 7, Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as the president of Russia, behind closed doors. Many reports have stated that this is Medvedev's first elected office, an ignorant portrayal at best. The March 2 presidential election in Russia was widely recognized as a fraudulent charade. The presidency was assigned to Medvedev in the same way as his previous titles as Putin's campaign manager, chief of staff and deputy prime minister. Just hours afterward, Medvedev returned the favor and made Putin his prime minister.

Last year Putin was asked if he would, following tradition, hang a portrait of the new president on the wall of his office. Putin balked, but the joke going around has it that he will indeed have one: a portrait of Medvedev in the president's office looking at a portrait of Putin. According to the Russian constitution, Medvedev is now the one in charge. But until there is actual evidence of his independence and authority, it is safe to assume that Medvedev still needs Putin's permission to use the Kremlin lavatory. The real "smooth transition of power," in the ironically perfect phrase of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was moving Putin from the presidency to the prime ministry.

We can expect a few bold proclamations and perhaps even some token policy changes to signal Medvedev's ascension. Unfortunately, the early signs here in Russia show that President Medvedev's statement about developing civil freedoms and ending "legal nihilism" were nothing more than part of the show for the West. Without these displays—elections with the results known in advance, media diversity without media freedom, business growth as long as it benefits Kremlin loyalists—Putin's gang of oligarchs might lose easy access to their billions in looted assets in the West. So far, as Putin learned well over eight years, there is no such danger. Russia pretends to be a democracy, and the leaders in America and the European Union pretend to believe Russia is a democracy.

That morally repugnant pact is not working so well for those of us fighting for real democracy here in Russia. The day before Medvedev took power, several dozen people were arrested simply for being in the general area of a rally that had already been cancelled. The police had promised that no one would be detained if the rally were called off; apparently they did not receive Medvedev's message about civil freedoms in time.

Oleg Kozlovsky, a member of The Other Russia opposition coalition leadership, was given 13 days in prison. Arrest reports for Kozlovsky came from two police officers, each giving an entirely different time and place of arrest. According to the judge, this curious fact "was not related to the case." A photojournalist working for the Russian paper Izvestia was also swept up by the police and charged with the usual formula of violating public order and disobeying police. He was sentenced to six days in prison for trying to do his job in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is essential to resist the temptation to give this new/old Kremlin regime the benefit of the doubt simply because there are new faces in new places. Medvedev claimed the presidency in blatantly illegal fashion, and so far this is all we know. Let us not pretend he was elected or that we know anything about him. Far more is known about Barack Obama's pastor than the new president of Russia. Medvedev is tainted from the start by his membership in Putin's dictatorial Kremlin regime. It will take action, not words, to establish whether or not he is his own man, let alone one who will change things for the better.

For that action to be meaningful, Medvedev has a wide range of areas deserving of immediate attention. He must free the long list of political prisoners who were jailed as Putin developed his KGB dictatorship. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other members of the Yukos management are the most prominent names on the list, but there are also scientists convicted on spurious espionage charges and many activists in jail whose only crime was speaking out against the Kremlin. And the new president must act against the wave of hate crimes that have claimed 40 lives since the beginning of this year. Homicidal neo-Nazi gangs roam the streets while pro-democracy marchers are locked up.

The basic human right of thinking and speaking one's mind has been drastically curtailed in Russia over the last eight years. The real test of Medvedev's presidency will be the way in which he deals with his most vocal critics such as The Other Russia. Will our activists still be harassed and detained for handing out pamphlets in the street? Will our people still constantly be followed the security services? Will our peaceful actions again be violently dispersed by police? Will we again be denied access to legal counsel after being arrested? Will the courts continue to rubber-stamp our prosecutions? Until we have the answers to those questions, there is no reason to take Mr. Medvedev's word about anything at all.