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A Stable Kremlin

September 18, 2009 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: BeslanBlack SeaHeads Of State

A Stable Kremlin

Reports of discord between Putin and Medvedev are vastly overblown.

The discussion section of the Valdai Club took place this year in Yakutia (or in the indigenous language, Sakha) in eastern Siberia, mainly in cruise ships on the river Lena. This was fascinating, but I must confess that there were moments when I found myself repeating Dr. Samuel Johnson's remark about the Giant's Causeway: "Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see." Going to see Yakutia involves a six-hour flight and a six-hour time difference from Moscow, with the result that I fell fast asleep during several of the sessions.

Yakutia's statistics are staggering. At 1.2 million square miles, the autonomous republic is almost as large as India, and covers three time zones. With nine hundred sixty thousand people, it has around a twelve hundredth of India's population. Even so, you do not really understand this until you look across the immense expanse of the river Lena and realize that it still has another one thousand five hundred miles to go before it reaches the Arctic Ocean, and stand on a hill and look westwards over a forest that extends without visible end, unbroken by human settlement.

The ethnic Yakuts now dominate the local administration, and seem to be doing rather well for themselves. This is perhaps not surprising, given that Yakutia sits on some of the world's greatest diamond deposits-but the money appears to be being spread around reasonably well. Yakutia is a useful reminder that with the dreadful exception of Chechnya and to a lesser extent the other North Caucasus republics, Russia's record of relations with its ethnic minorities since the breakup of the Soviet Union has not been a bad one by world standards.

One reason for this was pointed out by an old friend of mine, the late Vladimir Petrov, who was imprisoned in the Kolyma camps (to the east of Yakutia) under Stalin, and eventually emigrated to the United States. He remembered how the native peoples of Kolyma were paid by the NKVD to hunt down and kill or recapture prisoners who escaped from the camps-and the prisons contained some of the greatest representatives of the Russian intelligentsia and aristocracy. After an experience like that, it is presumably difficult for Yakuts to see ethnic Russians simply as imperial and racial oppressors. Equality in misery, as the old Russian saying has it.

I'd like to pause here for a brief advertisement on behalf of Yakut handicrafts. I acquired in Yakutia a wonderfully multipurpose device, which I would like to recommend to anyone engaged in public debate: a horsehair fly-whisk hung with bells. The horse hair is to keep off the mosquitoes and midges which teem in Yakutia's forests and swamps. The bells warn bears of your approach, and also frighten off evil spirits. Buy one, and wave it at the next person who disagrees with you on U.S. policy. If a devil flies out of their mouth, the audience will probably consider that you won the argument.

And so it goes at the Valdai Club, where around one hundred media figures, think tankers and other policy wonks who cross the ideological gamut get together every year. There are those who have been bitterly critical of Russian policy and the Russian administration, and strong supporters of NATO enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine; and journalists from the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, publications whose editorials have been pathologically anti-Russian throughout the years. Most of the British and German participants are balanced and dispassionate observers like my old colleague and friend Richard Beeston of the Times-though perhaps Western views on Russia are now so inflamed that just to be objective and balanced is now considered "pro-Russian."

The one big "story" of the meeting was when Putin was asked whether he would run against Medvedev for the presidency in 2012. Putin replied,

Did Dmitri Anatolievich and I oppose each other in 2008? No, we didn't. Nor will we oppose each other next time. . . . In 2012, we will think together and will take into account the realities of the time, our personal plans, the political landscape and the United Russia party and we will take the decision . . . Medvedev and I are people of the same blood. We will sit down and reach agreement depending on the particular situation. We will decide between ourselves.

This set off a small media storm, since it was taken-no doubt accurately-as a fairly strong indication that Putin probably will run again in 2012. A few days later, Medvedev told the Valdai that "Some time ago I wasn't even going to run for presidency, but fate willed it and that's why I don't plan anything, and don't rule out anything." Sections of the liberal opposition in Russia immediately tried to turn that into a statement of Medvedev's intention to oppose Putin.

Actually, it seemed to me that all this was a storm in a teacup, and that Putin and Medvedev told us pretty much what they might have been expected to tell us. It was always extremely likely that Putin (who is still only fifty-six) would run again for president in 2012. Equally, he and the Russian administration have been at pains to maintain the appearance of free elections in Russia - at least sufficiently to draw a clear line between Russia and the open personal dictatorships of Central Asia. Putin has also emphasized that he, as prime minister, and Medvedev, as president, share responsibilities and fulfill different tasks.

While it was therefore most unlikely that Putin would rule himself out at this stage from running for president in 2012, it was also extremely unlikely that he would rule himself in, thereby humiliating Medvedev, reducing him to a lame duck barely a year into his term, and increasing the possibility of a split in the Russian establishment in the run-up to 2012.

Only if there is a split in the establishment can the system that Putin has created be overthrown. Public unrest may well increase due to the economic recession, but the only existential threat to the regime will occur if a faction from within the establishment breaks away to join the protesters on the streets.

Putin's answer to the query concerning his intentions in 2012 therefore dodged the question, but also addressed this most important issue. When he declared that he and Medvedev had not run against each other in 2008 and would not run against each other in 2012 he was declaring that, whatever happens, the Russian establishment will remain united and strong.

As to whether it actually will or not, nobody knows yet. Probably not the protagonists themselves, certainly not the legions of Russian and Western observers and commentators grasping at every phrase and nuance in official statements and building baroque edifices of speculation upon them.

For my own part, all I'm prepared to say is the following. On the one hand, dyarchies like the present one in Russia have been notoriously unstable throughout history, and history (and literature) is replete with examples of placeholders who develop wills and ambitions of their own. Medvedev's speeches have not gone much beyond Putin's when it comes to calling for reform, and Medvedev has been at pains-including during Valdai-to criticize the United States. However, there have certainly been differences of nuance at least in their statements, and some of Medvedev's liberal advisers, like Igor Yurgens, have made no secret of their desire to see Medvedev replace Putin.

On the other hand, it also seems to me that Medvedev and other reformist elements within the system would have to be damned fools to split that system-and he seems to me to be anything but a fool. It is highly unlikely that Medvedev would win a struggle with Putin, but very likely indeed that such a struggle would wreck the system. As far as the more opportunist sections of the establishment are concerned, with oil at $70 a barrel, there is plenty of patronage to spread around-and therefore an enormous amount to lose if they break with the establishment.

Moreover, radical opponents of that system may look forward to the possibility of collapse with glee, but it is in fact highly unlikely that liberal reform would benefit from the resulting crisis. On the contrary, appeals by establishment factions to the streets might well pander to the worst tendencies of Russian xenophobia and populism. Pragmatic reformists who hope that Medvedev will push things further and faster than Putin are still likely to seek reform within the system, not outside it.

By the same token, it would be foolish in the extreme for the Obama administration to follow the apparent advice of some of its officials and ostentatiously show their preference for Medvedev over Putin. The people who advocate this have obviously learned absolutely nothing from the disastrous history of America's involvement in Russia in the 1990s. Given the attitudes of the Russian masses to the United States, nothing could be worse for Medvedev or the reformist course he represents than public U.S. support for him. President Obama very wisely recognized this risk of a nationalist backlash in his approach to Iran; he should not forget it again in the case of Russia.