While no longer quite as enigmatic as Stalin’s Soviet Union, today’s Russia has a rather curious political system. Most peculiar is its presidential election, which has all the psychodrama of reality TV. Will Dmitry Medvedev run for reelection as Russia’s president? Will his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, seek to return to the top job? How will they continue to work together once each makes his intentions clear one way or the other? Mr. Putin, known for off-the-cuff comments that have ranged from the barbed and sarcastic to the graphic, can produce very entertaining television.
Russia’s presidential campaign and its aftermath will also test the Obama administration’s management of a relationship it has claimed as one of its great successes even as Mr. Obama seeks his own reelection. The best course for the United States—and one that would also be wise for more than a few aspiring reality TV stars—is to stay off the screen.
The source of Russia’s bizarre presidential campaign is the country’s so-called “tandem,” the power-sharing arrangement between Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin, which is particularly obscure because of its apparently informal nature. Because of this arrangement, and Mr. Putin’s presumed dominance, neither of the two men has formally announced his candidacy with only seven months to go before the election in March 2012.
Still, Russia’s governing pair have been jockeying for position. Mr. Putin has done so largely through his actions; many in the country saw his creation of the Russian Popular Front in May as a preemptive blow to Mr. Medvedev’s potential candidacy. The prime minister himself has been careful to describe the purpose of the group as “[identifying] the problems that are facing us and come up with the best ways to address them.”
Russia’s president, for his part, has hinted strongly at his desire for reelection and appears to have given at least tacit approval for his informal advisors and other supporters to warn publicly of the possibly dire consequences of a new Putin presidency and even to launch personal attacks. One of the most vocal and visible has been leading liberal spokesman Igor Yurgens, the leader of a think tank that Mr. Medvedev chairs, who has argued forcefully that Mr. Putin’s return as president would bring about “stagnation” in Russia, an allusion to the Soviet Union’s economic slide in the 1970s and early 1980s. Another is Vladislav Inozemtsev, who was appointed to lead Mr. Medvedev’s signature international gathering, the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum, not long after writing in an article for The American Interest that former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his allies selected Mr. Putin to lead Russia because they “preferred a mediocre officer with no noteworthy achievements” over more experienced but less reliable public figures. Inozemtsev also attacked Putin as “famous only for his corrupt businesses in the St. Petersburg city hall” (when the future president was a deputy mayor in the early 1990s).
Mr. Medvedev’s more openly assertive approach reflects the fundamental weakness of his position vis-à-vis Mr. Putin, who as a nominal subordinate has evolved from Medvedev’s patron to his rival and remains more influential. As the eminent journalist Vitaly Tretyakov put it recently during a Center for the National Interest U.S.-Russia dialogue, Mr. Putin is “one hundred percent likely to run for president and, if he runs, is two hundred percent likely to win.” Russia’s current president faces a tough road to avoid this outcome; victory would require that he simultaneously persuade Russia’s elite that he is the better candidate and discourage his prime minister from running—without threatening Mr. Putin’s post-election career or lifestyle, or those of his allies, in a way that could force Putin to act decisively to defend personal interests. It is not yet clear that Russia’s president has the political skills required to carry off this challenging task.
Many in the United States will be tempted to root for Mr. Medvedev, whose statements and style are generally more appealing to an American audience. He has called for stronger rule of law, for efforts to curtail corruption, and for economic reforms to modernize Russia and integrate it more fully into the international economy. Russia’s president has also met publicly with Russian liberals and human-rights advocates and expressed sympathy for their causes.
Unfortunately, there is a considerable gap between Mr. Medvedev’s rhetoric and his action. Medvedev has done little about corruption—which most view as even worse than under Putin—firing some mid-level bureaucrats and military officers but making scant effort to clean up the senior levels of the presidential administration, the one institution over which he has the greatest influence. Moreover, he has made a variety of expensive promises to increase government spending—some of which have resulted in delicate criticism from senior liberals in Putin’s cabinet. (One of these officials, Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, is widely viewed as a leading contender to be prime minister under Putin if he returns to the Kremlin, and with Putin’s support he could be in a better position to deliver on reforms than a second-term Medvedev without Putin under him.) There is also less difference between Medvedev’s and Putin’s foreign policies than meets the eye; in fact, top conservative analyst Andranik Migranyan suggests that Mr. Putin “better understands Russian and American interests” and as a result that there would be “no illusions” in U.S.-Russian relations if he returns to the presidency.
Most significant, however, is the fact that neither Dmitry Medvedev nor his supporters have said that they expect or want to compete in a free and fair election. If President Medvedev runs and Prime Minister Putin does not, Russia’s balloting will be just as managed in 2012 as it was in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Taking this into account, the United States of America has no business praising Medvedev during Russia’s presidential campaign or—if he wins—afterward. This was a major mistake of the Clinton administration in 1996, when President Clinton personally compared Boris Yeltsin’s handling of Chechnya to Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the American union and his administration pulled out all the stops to support Yeltsin, including pressing for a multi-billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. One analyst now in the Obama administration endorsed this approach from the outside at the time and went so far as to describe Russia’s 1996 election as a “tremendous victory for democracy and democrats in Russia.”
The United States cannot and should not stop its routine business with Russia before the Russian election (or the U.S. election, for that matter) and should certainly continue to seek agreements on important issues, like Russia’s World Trade Organization membership. But the Obama administration should be quite careful to avoid politicizing the U.S.-Russian relationship. We may not know who will win Russia’s election, but we do know that Vladimir Putin will decide the outcome. And whatever happens, the country’s current system is likely to undergo major changes afterward—ancient Sparta was able to sustain leadership by two kings for generations, but modern Russia clearly cannot. America should approach Russia’s uncertain 2012 transition with great caution.