The Kremlin Begs To Differ

The Kremlin Begs To Differ

Mini Teaser: One doesn’t need to be a Russian domestic radical or a foreign Russophobe to see major flaws in the way Russia is ruled. The population, however, is satisfied with the status quo...for now.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. SimesPaul J. Saunders

That is, unless the talk of competition between Putin and Medvedev has some real heft. A genuine struggle could tear both the corrupt elite and the power vertical apart, with unpredictable consequences.


SINCE MOST power rests at the top, any uncertainty there shakes the entire system. How much influence and ambition Medvedev and Putin possess, and the intentions of each, will powerfully shape how Russia evolves.

But the Medvedev-Putin dynamic is less than clear. Medvedev, the one most challenging to the status quo, is sending mixed signals about his intentions while Putin appears somewhat ambivalent about protecting his primacy. So far, Medvedev seems to be more talk than action. Though he speaks graphically about Russia's challenges and failings, he seems unprepared to act on these sentiments.

This may mean that he enjoys less than full authority, as many have suspected. As one senior official who knows both well put it privately, Putin has a "higher potential" to persuade Medvedev when the two differ. Medvedev has so far been cautious and pragmatic, openly stating that he has no plans to replace the government, therefore minimizing the chances for any fight with Putin over the fate of particular ministers or, of course, over Putin's own role. Revealingly, he has also avoided making significant changes in his own senior Kremlin staff. Khrushchev and Gorbachev learned Stalin's lesson that "cadres decide everything" and moved very quickly to bring in their own people, like Gorbachev's liberal adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev. Medvedev has talked about personnel policy but has done little.

However, judging Medvedev on the basis of his current conduct may be unwise. Russia's still-new president has clearly grown, impressing his foreign counterparts with his confidence and command of the issues. Like many others who have met him, we also noted Medvedev's evolution before and after he became president. Moreover, his behavior in Russia makes sense-he is in no position to challenge Putin directly, and alienating the prime minister prematurely would not advance his career or his agenda.

Thus it should be no surprise that Medvedev has signaled plans to move slowly in attempting to introduce change. He justifies this by referring to mistakes of the past rather than his current constraints: "not everyone is satisfied with the pace at which we are moving," he wrote, adding that he will "disappoint the supporters of permanent revolution" because "hasty and ill-considered political reforms have led to tragic consequences more than once in our history."

Yet despite Medvedev's careful politics, he is clearly trying to establish both his authority and identity, demonstrating a degree of political courage and independence. After Putin declared "we're people of the same blood, with the same political views," the Russian president commented that "we'll have a test to see whether we have the same blood type," an obvious effort to define himself distinctly from his mentor and senior partner. While Putin remains publicly unperturbed, Medvedev's growing assertiveness has clearly not gone unnoticed by the prime minister's supporters. As one close Putin associate put it to us, "at a minimum Medvedev is allowing his ambitious advisers to play a very dangerous game. Vladimir Vladimirovich's [Putin's] patience is not unlimited."

Still, Medvedev's advisers seem optimistic about his prospects and apparently do not fear open retaliation. Igor Yurgens, who leads the Institute of Contemporary Development, which Medvedev chairs, has openly suggested that Putin has outlived his usefulness and should not run again for the presidency, lest he become a new Leonid Brezhnev, the ailing Soviet leader who presided over the country's stagnation in the 1970s and early 1980s. The fact that Medvedev occasionally differs with Putin creates political space that did not previously exist. Medvedev must know this and, at a minimum, is allowing his advisers to criticize Putin and Putin's team while signaling in his own public statements that the two have different views. According to Yurgens, there is now a full-blown "clash of interests" between "conservatives and statists on one side and liberals on the other."

Medvedev's constituency-"the liberals"-seems built around Russia's educated, urban middle and upper classes. It includes some tamed oligarchs who made peace with Putin, but who still resent having been cut down to size, as well as Westernized elites and professionals. Many were educated or have a presence overseas and see integration into the global economy as among Russia's important national interests. They also see themselves as part of a transnational elite-a few are a part of that coterie that have property and bank accounts overseas-and would suffer both financially and psychologically from Russian self-isolation.


PUTIN, FOR his part, enjoys considerable authority because of the strong support of the so-called "siloviki" (former KGB men and military types) in the security ministries, his economically driven popular legitimacy, his reputation for machismo and decisiveness, and a widespread sense of Russia's renewed stability and global influence. He has also grown. Appointed by Yeltsin's inner circle, including the unsavory tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who now lives in exile in London, Putin rapidly demonstrated that he was not the tool they sought and became a genuine leader. In the eyes of most Russians, he restored order, prosperity and dignity to their lives and their country, even if many outsiders believe he benefited from high energy prices and U.S. and Western distraction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Relatively few Russians are concerned about the gradual loss of freedom during his rule; Putin gave them what they wanted in exchange for what they didn't think they needed.

Importantly, most Russians believe that Putin cares about their country and cares what its people think. While no longer president, Putin continues to convey the image of a "good czar"-a national leader with clear power, charisma and a certain mystique. When polled, a majority or plurality of Russians regularly state that it is Putin who rules the country, with a smaller group saying that Putin and Medvedev share power, and only a slim share arguing that Medvedev alone is in charge. Strikingly, an August poll by the respected Moscow-based Levada Center found that some 52 percent of Russians credited Putin with leading Russia through the crisis relatively unharmed, compared to just 11 percent who praised Medvedev. When assigning responsibility for the economic hard times, 36 percent blamed "the government," 23 percent blamed Medvedev and only 17 percent blamed Putin.

Many Russian liberals recognize Putin's power and see no path toward reform without him. Yevgeny Gontmakher, who is also affiliated with the pro-Medvedev Institute of Contemporary Development, wrote that Russia needs "modernization with the prime minister" because "we do not have another person capable of somehow influencing the situation." Both Medvedev and his advisers also seem to fear moving too quickly and impulsively, reluctant to be crushed under the wheels of history like Kerensky and Gorbachev by unleashing a process that would develop its own momentum, not only bringing very different people to power (in today's case, possibly virulent left-leaning nationalists), but also creating considerably more upheaval than planned, and risking Russia's collapse or disintegration. Gontmakher writes that Russia has two options: "a ruthless mutiny" that he believes would not succeed or "some kind of modernization from above."


MUCH HINGES on the relationship between Medvedev and Putin, which is perhaps Russia's most carefully kept secret. Medvedev says that they meet only once per week, a fact his partisans share to dispel the notion that the president receives regular guidance from Putin. Both frequently cite Russia's constitutional division of labor, which puts the president firmly in charge of foreign and security policy and leaves the economy and social issues to the prime minister. However, each routinely acts to blur the lines; Medvedev summons ministers who report to Putin to issue public instructions on the economy, while Putin often takes a visible role on security and foreign-policy issues, such as last year's war with Georgia, the decision to apply to the WTO as a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan (announced just days after Medvedev's advisers said Moscow would continue with its previous approach), and high-profile foreign trips, like a 2009 visit to Poland around the seventieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the German (and Soviet) invasion. Nevertheless, without knowing what understandings may exist between them, it is difficult to be certain what behavior and statements to ascribe to a good cop/bad cop routine, to personal ambitions or to real policy differences.

Both Medvedev's intentions and Putin's potential responses are unclear. After all, it was Putin who spent eight years systematically eliminating or weakening any potential rivals in Russian politics only to create just such a rival when he left the presidency to become prime minister. Medvedev's supporters clearly hope that the prime minister will be prepared to fade away after receiving appropriate assurances. Putin's confidants deride this as "daydreaming," arguing that their man is reenergized and sees a continuing mission for himself in Russian politics.

The big unknown is whether Putin has a sufficient lust for power to fight back if Medvedev appears successful and loyal at the same time. If so, Putin seems unlikely to be as inept as the Soviet Union's so-called "anti-party group" that tried to remove Khrushchev in the 1950s or the anti-Gorbachev coup plotters of 1991.

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