Jockeying in the Kremlin

Both Medvedev and Putin are acting like men who want to lead Russia.

Russia has presidential politics.

On one level, this does not sound like such a big deal—after all, even North Korea, one of the world’s most closed political systems, appears to be in the midst of a politicized succession process. But it is a big deal, for three reasons.

First, while North Korea has the capacity to create a variety of problems, some of them quite serious, for the United States and its Asian allies, it is far from a global actor. By contrast, what happens at the top of Russian politics, and how it happens, can have a significant impact on American security, economic, and political interests around the globe, including in stopping Iran’s nuclear program, pursuing American and NATO operations in Afghanistan, and controlling oil and gasoline prices at home, to name just a few.

Second, the fact that Russia clearly is going through its own sort of presidential campaign counters much of the conventional wisdom about the country in the United States and the West since Dmitry Medvedev’s selection as president in 2008. When then-President Vladimir Putin stepped down and ensured Medvedev’s victory as his successor, most assumed it was the result of a secret Putin-Medvedev deal under which Putin would run the country behind the scenes until replacing his caretaker successor at the first opportunity.

As a practical matter, no one other than Putin and Medvedev appears to know whether there was a deal—and it seems unlikely that anyone will. If there was a deal, however, it strains credulity to argue that the two have carefully choreographed their public disagreements to create the illusion of competition. And even if they did, what may have started as an illusion looks increasingly real.

The list of dueling statements from Russia’s president and prime minister is becoming long. Their recent high-profile differences over the U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya are just the latest example; their public sparring, however tame by the standards of some other countries, began not long after Medvedev took office. In one earlier case, after Putin declared that he and Medvedev were “people of the same blood,” Medvedev said they would need a blood test to establish that.

But conduct is more significant that statements, and both Medvedev and Putin are acting like men who want to lead Russia. Medvedev has not only said that he wants to run, but taken steps to try to strengthen his hand—the single most important being his effort to remove government officials from the boards of state-owned firms, including forcing Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin to step down as chairman of oil giant Rosneft. Medvedev apparently sought to demonstrate his commitment to fighting corruption by drawing a clearer line between the government and big business while depriving a key Putin ally of access to Rosneft’s wealth and influence. Sechin appears likely to retain considerable sway at the firm, however.

More generally, Medvedev’s and Putin’s advisors and supporters are engaged in an increasingly visible struggle to position their candidates. Not everything happening is easily discernable outside Russia, but something is clearly going on. When political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky recently lost his Kremlin access pass, it was widely seen as a result of his aggressive campaigning for Medvedev, whom he had advised for years, including when Medvedev served as Putin’s Kremlin chief of staff. Another casualty was Konstantin Zatulin, who lost a parliamentary committee leadership position over his public support for Putin.

Still, however real the competition between them, Putin is still more influential than Medvedev and is likely able to decide who Russia’s next president will be. Medvedev is formally stronger than Putin under the constitution, but practically weaker in the informal arrangements that make Russia’s system work. As a result, he seems to be trying to structure Putin’s choice by creating the impression that he is prepared to contest the race. As a result, the key question is whether Putin will call Medvedev’s bluff and, if he does, whether Medvedev will pull out all the stops to challenge Putin. Since that challenge would be from a position of weakness, it would require bold choices by Medvedev to succeed. Hence the speculation already underway that Medvedev may try to dismiss Putin from his post.

Putin, conversely, has to determine whether he really wants to be president, prime minister, or something else. While the media has made much of his recent assertive stands, suggesting that Putin does want to run, many of his moves are open to multiple interpretations. Putin’s strange call last week for a “popular front” could be a recognition that his United Russia party is in a slow political decline and an effort to widen his base of public support beyond the party in preparation to for a presidential campaign. (There are limits to the “adjustments” that vote-counters can make in Russia, so voter support does matter.) Conversely, however, it could also be a way to ensure that he retains sufficient political influence after the election to choose both the president (Medvedev) and, through United Russia and its allies, the prime minister (Sechin or someone else) while enjoying a comfortable and secure retirement from high office.