President Dmitry Medvedev: Russia’s Blogger-in-Chief

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev does not receive very positive press in the Western media. Critics portray him as the hand-picked successor to Vladimir Putin and someone who has presided over a media crackdown, unfair business practices, and the undermining of democratic institutions.

But his recent treaty agreement with President Barack Obama on reducing each country’s nuclear stockpile by one-third warrants another look at his leadership. In signing this treaty, President Medvedev took a courageous step towards global peace and demonstrated he can stand up to folks at home who don’t like arms treaties in particular or any kind of agreement with the United States.

Following his participation in the Nuclear Security Summit, Medvedev spoke at the Brookings Institution and demonstrated still another dimension to his leadership style. During his talk, he revealed himself as a tech guy who loves digital gadgets and the freedom they bring in terms of communications and information gathering. In his prepared remarks, he discussed how he loves the Internet because it allows him to bypass staff and advisors, and hear a wide range of viewpoints.

During the question and answer period, I asked him how he personally uses technology and whether he and President Obama have ever emailed one another. Smiling at the question, he said that he hadn’t emailed Obama but would like to do so because it would speed up their communications. He noted it would be faster to use an i-Phone to text Obama. Right now, messages go to staff members and it takes time for information to filter up to the president. This loses valuable time and causes decision-making to take longer than he would like.

As Brookings President Strobe Talbott immediately pointed out at the event, that answer probably raised conniptions among the staffs of each president. Advisors always worry about private communiqués between world leaders that are not properly vetted by knowledgeable experts. Chief executives who spontaneously text or email another leader, as President Medvedev joked, could create havoc among official communications channels.

But the exchange provided an interesting excursion into Medvedev’s leadership style. After the email question, he warmed to the technology subject in general and talked passionately and at length about his web surfing habits. He said he started the day by reading a variety of different viewpoints. He reads articles from the Russian media as well as the foreign press.

And indicating an openness that one would not expect of someone portrayed as an autocratic leader, he said he regularly visits sites that express disagreement or even hatred of Russia. He said he likes to get a variety of viewpoints so that he is fully informed about a range of opinions. He consciously avoids placing himself in an informational bubble where he only hears what top aides want him to know.

It is an interesting leadership style because it shows a curiosity about the world, a willingness to hear opposing viewpoints, and a recognition that in the new digital world, leaders must extend their information acquisition broadly in order to be effective.

While cynics might complain that actions speak louder than words and that the Russian government needs to do much more to embrace an open society, the president’s proclivities when it comes to web surfing and information suggests a personal openness that bodes well for Russia’s future.

He has started a blog and sees this as a great way to express his views and get comments from other people. I looked at the site after his talk, and it covers a variety of topics: how Russia and Ukraine must begin a new era, the importance of remembering victories at times of national tragedies, his view that the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters must make the necessary commitments to climate change, and video from last year’s trip to Africa, among other substantive topics.

As a new president, the jury obviously is still out on his performance. But with his approval of nuclear weapons reduction, his interest in using technology to broaden his circle of advisors, and his curiosity about how others see Russia, he demonstrates a promising leadership style. It is hard to imagine Stalin or Brezhnev blogging or caring what others thought of their government decisions.