So the Big Wait is over. Putin’s successor has been named: the softie-semi-liberal Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy prime minister of Russia and chairman of the natural gas behemoth Gazprom. The choice is sure to disappoint Western promoters of the idiotic “Russia-Gone-Stalinist” narrative that’s been falling apart over the past few weeks so fast that even The Economist has been forced to pull their heads out of their neo-Cold-War asses and acknowledge, just in time, that reality here ain’t as simple as we’d like it to be.
The irony is obvious: the supposed Western-liberal Yeltsin named a KGB goon to replace him at the end of 1999, in a move that was even less democratic, and far more surprising, than Putin’s naming of Medvedev today. It was less democratic for the simple reason that Yeltsin was enormously unpopular when he named Putin to succeed him, and Yeltsin named Putin with only one goal in mind: to protect his corrupt ass after he stepped down, democracy and Russia be damned.
Today, Putin could have made a monkey his successor, to borrow a line Berezovsky once mistakenly used to describe how he’d created Putin in 1999. It’s not easy to fit his nomination of Medvedev into the facile neo-Stalinist narrative, but you can bet that some Western pundits will find a way.
In fact what naming Medvedev shows is something far more simple and humbling: Russians ain’t like us, as the War Nerd would say. (Incidentally, something that’s been bothering me, not sure how it fits in, but: Has anyone ever thought it a bit odd that Japan has been ruled by one party since we forced a “democracy” down their radiated throats sixty years ago? Just a thought…)
Now about the “liberal” label affixed to Medvedev, here's a tale that should make us question how useful it is. This past weekend a rather gruesome murder took place which may be relevant to the Medvedev nomination. Oleg Zhukovsky was found hogtied, tortured and drowned in his elitny dacha swimming pool outside of Moscow. At first, officials from the General Prosecutor’s office officials claimed Zhukovsky, who headed VTB bank’s loan department to the Russian $15 billion lumber industry, had committed suicide. Then the new “Investigative Committee,” a rival law enforcement agency recently set up by Putin to counter the power of the Prosecutor’s office, came in and said that it was in fact murder. By Saturday, the Investigative Committee changed their story again and said that Zhukovsky had killed himself in a popular new suicide method: hogtying oneself and rolling into one’s swimming pool to make sure you can’t survive it. The struggle strongly suggests another front in the battle between siloviki factions, as Western publications are just beginning to acknowledge.
How does this relate to Medvedev? In 1993, Medvedev, working under Putin in the St. Petersburg city administration, was named to head the legal department for Ilim Pulp, today Russia’s largest timber and pulp company. Medvedev steered Ilim Pulp’s rise to dominance through various legal machinations, and was said to own a massive chunk of the company’s shares in 1999, when he moved to Moscow to join then-prime minister Putin’s government. At the time, there were big questions about how Ilim Pulp and its new companies in Bratsk and elsewhere were “privatized.” Those questions have since ceased; today, Ilim is the largest timber company in Russia. In October, American multinational giant International Paper announced that it was buying a 50% stake in Ilim Pulp, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year, when Ilim Pulp was being courted by foreign investors, Kommersant reported that Ilim Pulp had bought back 25% of its assets back from VTB bank in a deal blessed by the Kremlin.