Putin or Medvedev? That question dominates Russian political discourse today as the country prepares for presidential elections in 2012. Each man’s public actions and all political developments, such as the recent firing of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, are meticulously dissected for clues to the answer.
Putin and Medvedev have repeatedly stated that they will consult with one another before announcing a decision on which of them will stand for—and most assuredly win—election. They have also made it clear that they will not formally compete against one another. Despite widespread speculation that the decision has already been made—and that Putin will return to the presidency—the two men insist, as do other insiders, that that is not the case. That rings true, for the suspense keeps elites off balance and thereby enhances the power of each individual and of the tandem itself, and detracts attention from aspects of governing Russia that are best conducted in the shadows. For that reason, the final decision is likely to be made and announced as late as possible, toward the end of 2011.
Putin and Medvedev have said they will make the final decision. As a practical matter, the two men will undoubtedly at some point sit down, agree on the way forward, and announce it publicly—and Putin’s voice will figure larger in that conversation than Medvedev’s. But that decision will emerge out of the intricate interplay among multiple elite factions that have a stake in the outcome. Putin will want to take care to balance competing interests and minimize the risk of disruptive elite feuds, particularly in public.
Given current power relations, the process for determining the next president is not so much a competition between Medvedev and Putin as an audition by Medvedev to convince Putin and the elites that he is worthy of a second term. Well into next year, the elites will evaluate the benefits and downsides of the current arrangement, the tandem, and its potential given the challenges Russia faces over the next several years in growing its economy and maintaining, preferably enhancing, it status as a major world power. A not insignificant additional consideration will be the likely impact of Medvedev’s reelection on the stability of the current system and the status of influential members of the elite and their factions.
The tandem was created in 2008 so that, as one pundit put it, “Putin could leave without leaving.” Putin had insisted that he would not change the constitutional ban on one person’s serving more than two presidential terms in succession so that he could stay on, while insisting that he would remain a political force. As a result, in 2007/8, the drama surrounding the presidential election was not so much who would succeed Putin as from what position Putin would exercise his enormous power. The answer turned out to be as Prime Minister and, to a lesser extent, as head of the party of power, United Russia.
Since 2008, the tandem has functioned reasonably well. It has weathered in good shape a war in Georgia, growing confrontation with the United States and Europe (at least until 2009), and a major global economic crisis. In particular, the economic crisis did not spark the widespread social unrest that many officials and commentators had feared. Many concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the stability was a consequence of the tandem’s ability to devise and execute the correct set of policies and reassure the public.
But the tandem, by design or not, has yielded additional benefits, at home and abroad.
At home, it has broadened the space for political debate a time when debate is critical to Russia’s future—successful modernization will require active support and input from the most energetic and creative segments of the population; it cannot be simply decreed and imposed from above. Medvedev’s image as a younger, more progressive leader, his condemnation of corruption and legal nihilism, and his focus on modernization have raised hopes and encouraged broader engagement in a more open public policy debate. At the same time, Putin’s presence undoubtedly reassures more conservative forces that this debate, and Medvedev’s policy initiatives, will not get out of hand as Gorbachev’s perestroika did two decades ago.
Abroad, Medvedev as the face of Russia made it easier for the Obama Administration to reset relations with Russia, as well as for European leaders to purse more constructive approaches. Moreover, because of its clear preference for Medvedev over Putin, the Obama Administration has sought to bolster his position with policies that are certainly more forthcoming than those they would have pursued had Putin stayed on as president. Russia thus wins concessions it might otherwise not have.
There are, however, downsides to the tandem. Perhaps the most serious is that the current arrangement diminishes the office of the presidency, retards the institutionalization of power, and fosters its continued personalization. Medvedev is not a puppet, as many have claimed, but he lacks the leadership qualities that Putin has in abundance, and he is so clearly playing second fiddle. From time to time, Putin cannot help but upstage him—often in ways that underscore his personal power rather than necessarily the dignity of his office, while, consciously or not, mocking Medvedev and eroding the dignity of the presidency (for example, Putin‘s various hunting and fishing expeditions or his escapades with bikers).
In this context, Medvedev’s challenge over the next several months is to demonstrate that, as president, he can continue to bring tangible benefits to the Russian elites, while creating the image of a strong leader (that is, that he as a personality is an indispensable factor in the tandem’s success). Firing Luzhkov, ensuring the ratification of the New START agreement, and attracting substantial Western investment to his modernization project, particularly the Skolkovo initiative, are all ways of demonstrating his worth. At the same time, he needs to demonstrate that he can control his push to open up the political system in a way that benefits economic growth but does not threaten the type of destabilization that ended Gorbachev’s earlier reform effort and brought the Soviet Union to ruin. And Medvedev must do this against the background of constant reminders that Putin remains the dominant political figure and in a way that does not threaten Putin.
While attention is focused on the who of 2012, the crucial question is the what. What, if any, difference will the decision have for Russia’s future, for its role in the world? One could argue that any difference would be inconsequential, more one of style than substance. In 2012 and after, Russia will face the same challenge, the need to modernize to grow its economy and maintain—or, as some would argue, regain—its status as a great power. An elite consensus has already been forged on the need to modernize, even if the details are up for debate, and on the tactical need for American and European support if Russia is to modernize successfully and therefore on the continuing need to reduce tensions with the West. This consensus would endure under a President Medvedev or a President Putin.
In the short term this is almost certainly true. The choice in 2012 will not likely have a sudden dramatic impact on the state of Russia or its relations with the outside world. But the difference could be striking when looked at from the perspective of accumulated incremental change over the course of the next presidential term, which under the amended constitution will be six years rather than the current four. Medvedev’s reelection, even if Putin stayed on as Prime Minister, would offer the promise of more rapid progress in opening up the political system, encouraging individual initiative, and fostering good relations with the United States and Europe. Putin’s return, by contrast, would bring a different promise, of a more constrained political debate, a stronger state role in the economy, and a cooler relationship with the United States and Europe. A Medvedev presidency, with or without the tandem, ultimately leads to a different place than a Putin presidency, and to one that is likely more in tune with American interests.
If Medvedev does stay on, however, the question of enhancing the dignity of the presidency, of eroding the personalized nature of power, will become more acute. This is another reason why Medvedev needs to demonstrate that he can be a strong leader. But in the end this is a question about Putin: Would he give Medvedev the political space he needs to establish himself as a genuine leader? Could he leave the political stage in deference to Medvedev, if not immediately then at least gradually over time? Would the elite, which relies on him to manage intra-elite competition, let him? Historically, Russian leaders have left the political stage either dead or discredited. Could Putin set a different precedent of leaving honorably and living to tell about it? That might not be he question for 2012, but it is a critical one for Russia’s future.