The Putin-Medvedev Story

Best friends. Better rivals?

The Russian presidential election is slated to be held next spring, which means all the candidates’ names should be revealed no later than early winter. The question, of course, is: Will Vladimir Putin decide to return as president, or will Dmitry Medvedev become strong enough to outrightly oppose his patron?

The relationship between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin hummed along quite peacefully for some two years. That was until the “Luzhkov case” broke out in September 2010. This incident, in which Medvedev fired the longtime mayor of Moscow (ostensibly against Putin’s will, although the prime minister belatedly admitted it was “absolutely clear that the Moscow mayor didn’t get along with the president, and the mayor is subordinate to the president, not the other way around”), revealed the first signs that the strength of the tandem had somewhat weakened.

Since then, the two men have been fighting—albeit at arm’s length—over the economy. One of Medvedev’s initiatives when he became president was for a broad modernization of the Russian economy through fostering competitiveness and innovation, interpreted within Russia as a direct juxtaposition to Putin’s doctrine of stability. Yet in the last month, Prime Minister Putin has begun to actively elaborate on the themes of modernization and further economic growth. This has been instantly interpreted as an “encroachment” on Medvedev’s agenda and has many reading it as a sign that Putin is firmly determined to regain the post of president in the upcoming elections.

And then, of course, there is Libya. And as we all know, the two leaders put out essentially contradictory statements on NATO’s bombing campaign.

The carefully crafted stability of the Putin-Medvedev partnership was long presented as the great socio-political achievement of the new regime, replacing the chaos of the previous decade. However, this stability has also cost the nation a great deal, since the manifestations of dissent and competition were subordinated to the cause of unity. Indeed, the steadiness of the present is maintained at the cost of stifled further development, and this can be applied to both political and economic realms.

Now the two men seem headed for a potential rivalry. The current president, in the eyes of many, has achieved less than needed to convince the nation of his superiority over the prime minister. Medvedev is modern and open-minded, but his capabilities fall short of his commitments—this is a widespread view even among the ruling elite. His crusade against corruption and for an innovative future hasn’t brought astonishing results.

At present, the odds that Putin will decide to come back seem higher than those of Medvedev getting a second term. But there’s always the outside chance of a dark-horse third candidate, especially considering that a survey, conducted in April by the prominent Levada Center, found that at least 25 percent of respondents want to see neither Medvedev nor Putin as their next president. With a forceful state-controlled media and a Russian establishment that has remarkably not ruled out such a possibility, the election may yet surprise us.

The situation is reminiscent of the old joke about Sovietologists, who knew the exact number of Soviet missiles, but were virtually helpless to guess the name of a new Politburo member, since they never could comprehend the logic of these assignments.