In recounting how small and intimate Estonia is as a country, I referenced a moment from March where I suddenly found myself in an elevator with Boris Nemtsov and Marko Mihkelson.
"Who's Boris Nemtsov?" he asked.
"He used to be deputy prime minister of Russia, but now he's a critic of the Kremlin," I replied.
"Oh," he laughed. "I hope he didn't get any poison on you."
I thought my friend's comment was interesting because so many of us in "the West" have come to see Russia as an assertive country growing in influence while at the same time viewing our own democracies as weak. The Brits dislike Gordon Brown; the general feeling in the US is that, come Obama or McCain, at least by January we'll be done with W. In Estonia, the people are frustrated with Andrus Ansip. Äripäev put it so well recently:
It’s time for Ansip to take off his pink glasses and show that he still is the authoritarian leader he was during the bronze night. It’s not about how you understand history or whether you’ll offend or insult someone. It’s taking responsibility before voters and citizens who have gave you a job to do.
In this simmering cauldron of political disaffection, the newly elected president of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, looks like a shiny new toy. He's young; he likes Deep Purple; his name means "bear" -- what else could you want? Russian imitation democracy gave him a "mandate" of 70 percent: so he's loved by his people. And yet, even by pairing the words "Russian" and "tea," one does not think of some tasty byproduct of the country's economic boom; one thinks of death by radioactive element.
Everyone is being nice to Medvedev now because they are generally nice to whomever is the new leader in Moscow. But the truth is that the fellow is facing some serious PR challenges. His legitimacy is questioned because of the nature of his election; his independence is questioned because of his relationship with Putin; and the stability of the political environment in his country is questioned, because whenever someone thinks "Russian politician" they think "polonium-laced tea."
It's going to take a lot more than cheesy jokes about rock concerts to spruce up that image. We should remind ourselves of that fact anytime we feel intimidated by the aura of a resurgent Russia.