Analysis: In a recent nationally-broadcast interview, President Medvedev reminisced about Russia’s 2009 war with Georgia. His recollections have Russian pundits wondering if Medvedev is now preparing for a new fight – on the political front.
MOSCOW -- The format of Dmitry Medvedev's interview was telling in itself. First, it was given simultaneously to three broadcasters: Russia Today, Echo Moskvy and First Caucasian TV. That hasn't happened often under the current president. The inclusion of Caucasian TV was particularly interesting as it is considered to be the mouthpiece of the administration in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital and largest city.
The Russian media chosen for the interview was less surprising. Russia Today is the Kremlin's propaganda arm aimed at Western audiences. And Echo Moskvy aired an interview in July with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. The Medvedev interview was in many ways a response to the Saakashvili broadcast. Russia Today's audience is the West, while Echo Moskvy appeals to educated and politically active Russians, including businessmen and officials – the very powers that can convince Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Medvedev is worth considering for a second term.
All in all, the president didn't fare badly in the interview. He came across as patriotic. But he didn't seem like a fanatic.
The interview was more than just an opportunity for the president to explain Russia's position on the war against Georgia. After all, Medvedev has stated his case many times before. Instead it was a way for Medvedev to focus on his only achievement as president. Whether it was a good thing or not, polls suggest the war against Georgia was supported by an overwhelming majority of Russians. It's similar to the "small victory" Russia had against Chechnya in 1999, which was a turning point for Putin. And isn't it true that any president hoping for reelection needs to remind his voters of his successful deeds?
Medvedev may not have had any of this in mind, just as his recent speech before the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, where he shared his thoughts on Russia's future, may not have been a pre-election pitch. But it's unlikely. With four months to go before the election campaign kicks off, it's only logical to analyze Medvedev's interview as that of a potential candidate.
First of all, the president wanted to come across as a decisive and independent leader, something he best accomplished when talking about the night of Aug. 8, 2009, when he personally made the decision to open fire on Georgian troops. He particularly stressed that he only got in touch with Putin – who was in Beijing, China – 24 hours later. It turned out that there was a technical problem with the connection. But he also single-handedly made the decision to officially recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia even though his aides were not sure it was the right thing to do.
There is an apparent contradiction, however, to the president's message. Medvedev insists even drawn-out negotiations are better than open conflict, which proves he's more of a true politician than an uncompromising lawyer. But on the other hand, Medvedev the lawyer failed to explain how the war in Georgia and Ossetia was different in principle to what Russia did in Chechnya in 1999. The contradiction did not go unnoticed in the blogging sphere – by writers who both support and oppose the Russian government.
Otherwise, Medvedev didn't look bad at all. He scored points by talking about his close relationships with Western leaders such as France's Nicholas Sarkozy and former U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice – whom he admitted once called "Condi" by mistake. He also did well in projecting himself as a leader with both integrity and a personal touch. "Saakashvili committed crimes against the Russian people. I will never forgive him," Medvedev said. He went on to say that "it hurts to remember what happened back then."
The question remains, however, whether the president will ever be seen as more than a side-kick, a junior partner in the two-man Medvedev/Putin tandem. For Russians who love Putin's eloquent speech, Medvedev can never match up. Still, the sense of triumph in the interview was tangible.
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