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President Medvedev Rocks at Brookings

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke to a capacity crowd at Brookings on April 13, addressing U.S.-Russian relations and Moscow’s perspective on a host of international questions. The style of his presentation was as interesting as the points he made.

There’s an image in the West—perhaps a bit of a stereotype—that speeches by Russian officials to foreign audiences will be stiff, staid and long-winded affairs. Medvedev shattered that mold.

First, the Russian president’s opening statement was notable for its brevity.  Instead of delivering a 30-minute speech as planned, he spoke for about 15 minutes before telling the audience he would prefer to move on to the more interesting part—questions.  Leaders from the post-Soviet space often seem eager to speechify for most of their allotted time … in order to avoid questions.  Medvedev welcomed them.

Second, Medvedev showed himself at ease with a broad range of topics.  To be sure, he sidestepped some questions with measured diplomatic responses.  Asked if Russia would support the continued U.S. presence at the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, he demurred on offering support and instead termed the continuation of the base a sovereign decision for the Kyrgyz government to make.  But he also offered some disarmingly candid responses.  Asked if he had foreseen the 2008 economic crisis, Medvedev answered plainly that he had not, and that once it began he had underestimated the depth of Russia’s ultimate economic contraction.  He admitted to being “astounded” by the course of events.  Interestingly, Medvedev added that the crisis had a positive side.  It underscored to Russians the vulnerability of an economy so heavily dependent on energy extraction, and pointed to the urgent need to modernize and reconstruct the economy––although he also conceded he had no easy answers for how to effect such change.

Third, the President showed a sense of humor and clearly had fun with the discussion, talking about how the internet had “changed his life” as well as his perspective on many issues, and joking about setting up an SMS exchange with President Obama.  When Brookings President Strobe Talbott closed the session and thanked him, Medvedev responded with a smile that he had not yet had time to address all the other questions that he had anticipated and were doubtlessly on the audience’s mind, like the nature of his relationship with (Prime Minister) Putin.

All in all, an impressive performance.  It likely reflected some confidence gained from a successful April 8 meeting in Prague with Obama, where the two leaders signed the New START Treaty cutting U.S. and Russian strategic offensive forces.

Invariably, some will weigh Medvedev’s performance and ask what it reveals about the tandem leadership he shares in Moscow with Putin and the division of power between the two.  As we have seen previously, Medvedev and Putin talk in different terms.  That reflects their very different personal and professional backgrounds.  But there is little evidence thus far to suggest that the two have clashed seriously on substantive policy issues.  And, as much fun as speculation about Kremlin politics can be, the reality is that Washington has to deal with Russia as a whole.  But we certainly saw on April 13 a Russian president who is growing increasingly comfortable with the public manifestations of his job and with a larger international role.