On foreign policy, Medvedev's presence in the Kremlin allowed Washington to go ahead with the reset, a policy largely unthinkable had Putin remained president. Obama saw restoring the Moscow-Washington relationship that soured at the end of George W. Bush's administration as a top priority and consequently spoke or met with Medvedev more than almost any other world leader. The reset policy overlooked the fact that the Russian system, notwithstanding the softer Medvedev facade, had not changed; this reality has become more apparent in the past year over differences on Syria, missile defense, and human rights. Moreover, one shouldn't forget that the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war happened on Medvedev's watch, and Moscow's annexation of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia reflects its continuing neo-imperialist tradition. It should have been obvious to all much earlier that Medvedev's liberal, pro-Western image was more fiction than fact.
Many in Russia hoped that Medvedev represented a real change from Putin and Putinism. Russian opposition leaders even accepted Medvedev's invitation to discuss democratization after the December 2011 protests. Human rights leaders were cautiously willing to see whether progress was possible, and they were willing to lend their participation to the presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council. At least four members of this presidential council have no intention of continuing to serve under Putin, according to its chairman, Mikhail Fedotov.
In the West, quite a few were enchanted by the new Kremlin tenant. One of the most astute observers of Russia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, described Medvedev as "the most prominent spokesman for the modernization-democratization school of thought" and noted Medvedev's understanding of the need for democratization as a "milestone in Russia's political evolution." Other observers, including some in the U.S. government, offered gushing praise of Medvedev, attributing great significance to his pronouncements on modernization and anti-corruption.
More recently, Medvedev set his admirers straight. "In my views, I've never been a liberal," he announced after accepting an offer to lead the United Russia party, essentially admitting that he had been lying not only to his Western interlocutors, but to his citizens as well. Medvedev became a convenient excuse for some who wanted to reconcile or do business with the Kremlin. In reality, his hollow rhetoric legitimized the reality of Russian authoritarianism and helped the Russian political elite and business oligarchs interact with the West.
In moving to the prime minister's position, Medvedev will remain a footnote in history. At least now, however, the West and those inside Russia waiting for Medvedev to begin real change can stop pretending and hoping. Putin's formal return to the Kremlin lays bare the real Russian system of one-man rule we've in fact been dealing with for the past dozen years.
The end of Medvedev's phony liberal presidency is likely to force the Kremlin to rely more on repressive mechanisms and stoke nationalism. This, in turn, is likely to produce rising frustration and anger within society and possibly spark political upheaval; already, more labor strikes have occurred in Russia this year than all of last year. Disappointment with Medvedev is apt to kill the false hope that change would emanate from the top in Russia. At the same time, pressure from below could lead to unforeseen circumstances not unlike those witnessed recently in the Arab world.
As Medvedev relinquishes formal power, he leaves his country demoralized. Under his presidency, the regime became more corrupt and discredited, while the country stagnated. The one bright spot is that the Russian people have displayed an awakening, a growing desire to demand accountability from their government. Sunday's demonstration involved tens of thousands of protesters; hundreds were arrested and brutally assaulted by massive security forces in the latest evidence that the regime is losing legitimacy. The crackdown, which aptly occurred on Medvedev's last day in office, raises more questions about the sustainability of the system. The protesters' readiness to confront the authorities proves that Russia is entering turbulent times.
In preparing for his departure, Medvedev said, "Everybody should relax: This" -- his tandem with Putin -- "is for a long time." Such cocky sentiments suggest that neither he nor his boss has learned any lessons from their time in the Kremlin, let alone any lessons from Russia's long history.