This has been a terrible week for Dmitry Medvedev. First, of course, he was dumped as Russia's president. Then there was the blowup with the finance minister. Finally, he had to endure the revival of all those mortifying two-guys-go-into-a-restaurant jokes, the kind in which Medvedev always features as the "vegetable" and Putin as the "steak."
To all this, I say: Buck up, Mr. President. The past four years have not been a total waste. Medvedev did more than keep the presidential seat warm. He changed the country's politics in ways that will make Putin's job as president much more challenging. For this, anyone who cares about where Russia is headed should be grateful.
The open secret of the long succession drama was that a large portion of the Russian political elite, even people in his direct employ, did not want Putin to return as president. To them, he felt like yesterday's man -- someone who many said had served the country well in the past, but whose work was done. Who could not possibly take the country forward. Who would, in fact, make the country feel like Central Asia.
A lot of these people made their case openly. For months, the media and airwaves were full of pundits bewailing Putin's return. They spoke up loudly this week, too. Medvedev's own economic advisor was typical. "There is nothing to be happy about," Arkady Dvorkovich tweeted after the announcement. And when Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, had to be fired because he refused to work under Medvedev as prime minister, he wasn't just dissing Medvedev. He was slamming Putin's entire plan -- and his policies, too.
The people who didn't want Putin back haven't gotten their way, of course. But this uproar represents a different kind of success. Four years ago, when Putin's best pal from his KGB days, Sergei Ivanov, was passed over for the presidency, he was said to have thrown an ashtray at a TV set. But he didn't denounce his betters in public, he didn't refuse to serve Medvedev, and he didn't have people wondering whether he might become (as Kudrin may) a leader of the opposition. He made no news at all. Compared with the orderly but farcical selection of Putin's successor in 2007, this year's events look more like real politics.