In the year since he was sworn in as Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev has displayed great prowess at smiling, nodding and sounding liberal—but that's been it. Despite his public praise of freedom as "an absolute value" and his denunciation of Russia's culture of "legal nihilism," there has been little sign until now of any actual departure from the hardline policies of his mentor and predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Dissidents have continued to be harassed, government-connected businessmen continue to prosper at the expense of outsiders and Putin's fiercest adversaries—particularly the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his associates—face ongoing legal troubles. Real power has remained solidly in the grasp of Prime Minister Putin and his inner circle, while the president has appeared to be little more than their fresh-faced, sweet-talking puppet.
But lately some of Medvedev's detractors are starting to think they may have underestimated him. The president has begun publicly overturning some of Putin's key policies, rolling back repressive legislation and paying attention to the government's critics rather than trying to silence them. "We all want to believe that our ruler is generous, fair and kind," says journalist and human-rights activist Svetlana Sorokina. "Now we're seeing the first signs that he is."
Medvedev's liberalized approach has had little visible effect on the country's hard-nosed foreign policy. So far, Putin seems firmly in charge there. But inside Russia, many activists say they're floored by the recent thaw, after a decade of being frozen out. "We could never dream of being included in a presidential council," says Kirill Kabanov, head of the privately run National Anti-Corruption Committee. "President Medvedev not only listens to us, but he makes decisions based on the reports we prepare for him."
Others aren't so sure. Opinions were particularly divided last week, when a Moscow court unexpectedly ordered the early release of Svetlana Bakhmina, a mother of three and former lawyer for Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company, after five years in prison on charges of tax evasion. Medvedev has always insisted that the courts are kept entirely free from political interference, but no one takes that assertion seriously. "Nothing in our country happens without confirmation from above, especially on something as political as the Yukos case," says Sorokina. Some saw last week's ruling as evidence that Medvedev was finally making good on his promises of reform. Bakhmina's defenders have always argued that she's only a victim of the campaign against Khodorkovsky. But others, pointing out that the state's attorneys endorsed her release, suggest that she may have agreed to testify against her old boss, whose trial on new charges is currently in progress.
Nevertheless, there's a change in the air. The first sign of it came early this year, when the president blocked a draconian treason law, drafted under Putin, that would have criminalized many forms of dissent. Medvedev's decision followed the issuance of a report slamming the bill as a license for political repression. Elena Lukyanova, one of the legal experts who authored the report, says the legislation was meant to benefit the siloviki—the hardline nationalist faction of Putin's inner circle. Many of them are former members of the secret police, like Putin. "They needed a legal method to get rid of independent-thinking people," says Lukanova, who happens to belong to Khodorkovsky's defense team. (The oligarch's supporters contend that his prosecution for alleged tax evasion was politically motivated, so it's only logical that his name keeps popping up in any discussion of reforms.)
Medvedev is trying a different approach: invite the activists to the Kremlin. Two weeks ago he met with representatives from 36 of Russia's leading nongovernmental organizations—groups that Putin had practically tried to eradicate with strict registration laws. Medvedev's guests included the head of Memorial, a human-rights group whose offices had been brutally raided last year by police who confiscated the group's files on Russian ultranationalists. The president said he regretted that Putin-era laws had been taken as meaning "all NGOs are enemies of the state." On the contrary, Medvedev said, their work is "essential for the health of our society." He asked them for reports on government corruption and legal reform, and Kabanov's National Anti-Corruption Committee submitted a whole list of recent cases in which government-connected businessmen took over companies that had been bankrupted by allegedly false tax claims.
The new tolerance goes far beyond the rights groups. State-controlled television has also undergone a marked liberalization. There's been a revival of televised political satire, and in February, Channel One gave serious airtime to Aleksandr Shokhin, head of the influential Russian Businessmen's Union, as he denounced the new charges against Khodorkovsky as a complete sham. Russia's progressives remain cautious. "It is too early to talk about freedom of speech yet," says former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. "But there are positive signs, maybe of a political spring." He's currently running for mayor of Sochi, the south Russian city that will hold the 2014 Winter Olympics. Two of the leading opposition candidates were bounced from the ballot on technicalities, and others who remain in the race, like Nemtsov, complain of too little TV coverage for their campaigns. But at least it's a genuine political contest, in contrast to most Russian elections in recent years.
Despite the apparent differences between the presidencies of Putin and his handpicked successor, there are few signs of any real disagreement between the two men, personally or politically. "Medvedev came from Putin's state apparatus—he is a reformer, not a revolutionary," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank. "Like Russian historical reformers, he is part of the old machine." Some people say the very idea of Medvedev challenging Putin is no more than wishful thinking. "All we see is just a change of style," says Alexei Venediktov, the director of Echo Moskvy, Russia's leading liberal radio station. "The president does not make a single decision without consulting with the prime minister first."
Putin loyalists say much the same. "Russia's state institutions, created by Putin, are stable and powerful," says Mikhail Leontyev, anchor of the prominent political talk show "Odnako." "There are not two branches of power, only one." He points out that Medvedev has replaced only about one sixth of Putin's appointees and holdovers with his own people.
Nevertheless, Medvedev's approach could transform Russia—if it succeeds. That's a big if. The president has decreed that all senior bureaucrats must publicly disclose their incomes and business interests and those of their immediate families. But his war on corruption in high places is by definition an attack on some of the very men he has relied on as his chief power base. "Russia's bureaucrats just laugh at Medvedev's income-declaration law," says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB general on the Duma's Security Committee. "This is not a real struggle, but an imitation of struggle. There is no one to check these Potemkin declarations." With Russia's federal budget slashed by a third and inflation and unemployment rising, Russians want action, not just noble words.
One major test will be the Khodorkovsky trial's outcome. "Authorities, observe your own laws," the oligarch says. The slogan dates back to Soviet-era dissidents, and Medvedev has made it his main theme. Russians will be watching how the court handles the Putin adversary's case in comparison with other ongoing trials involving defendants who are better connected.
The risk is that even if Medvedev's reform efforts are genuine, they could come to nothing. Some old-school members of Putin's circle—especially those who personally benefited from the breakup of Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company—could try to derail Medvedev's liberal agenda. One fairly simple way would be to reignite last summer's war with Georgia. And if Medvedev's anticorruption drive finally brings some sticky-fingered bureaucrats to justice, few of them are likely to be from the inner circle. For all the skepticism, however, many liberals are cautiously optimistic. As they see it, even if spring isn't quite here yet, at least the ice has started to break.