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The Modernizing Tandem And Its Discontents


President Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in March 2010.

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in March 2010.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's comments to French media about his plans for the 2012 presidential elections sent predictable ripples through the Moscow punditocracy.

"We will see, somewhat closer to 2012," Putin told French journalists ahead of his visit to Paris. "Naturally, I am already thinking about this issue with President Medvedev but have decided not to make much fuss about it, not to let ourselves be distracted by this problem. What we will do in 2012 will depend on the results [of our work]."

Speaking to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Dmitry Furman of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe interpreted Putin's remarks to mean he was leaning toward keeping the current tandem arrangement in place.

"That they will make some sort of pact and refrain from racing against each other for presidency has been clear from the very beginning... Putin's words regarding his current job did imply that there was at least a chance that he might remain the premier after 2012," Furman told the daily.

Also speaking to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Politics Foundation, said Putin and Medvedev have not yet decided what they plan to do in 2012. Pavlovsky, Russia's uber-spinmeister who has close ties to Putin, says until a final decision is made, the ruling tandem is going to be very careful about what kind of signals it sends to the bureaucracy:

It was the first time Putin said it plainly and unequivocally. No decision has been made yet and the tandem's hands are untied. This state of affairs preserves a situation in which the bureaucracy must remain loyal to both as opposed to being loyal to only one of them What counts is that all of that keeps the machinery of state machinery tame and under control. Had Putin said, for example, that he liked his current job too much to want to change it for something else, this control would have instantly disappeared. It would have led to an exodus from Putin's team right then and there. I do not think that what team Medvedev has managed to put together so far is strong enough to deal with this situation....
The tandem taught voters the necessity to make a choice they would have just as happily avoided. Individually, every person sympathizes with one or the other [participant in the tandem], but only as long as there are no conflicts between them and there is no need to choose one over the other.

OK, so the bureaucracy is happy. But what does this all mean for policy?

In a recent article in politkom.ru, Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the Political Technologies Center Analysis Department, writes that the continued presence of two leaders is a recipe for chaos and confusion:

The contradictions in Russian domestic policy were visible virtually immediately after Dmitriy Medvedev became the Russian president. Medvedev and his new agenda set a new domestic policy direction that diverged from the previous eight years. But the fact that this new direction was directly or indirectly supported by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin created a sense of a consensus across the elite and a unified choice in favor of adjusting the rules of the game in domestic policy. But the presence of two leaders, one of whom is seen as the repository of a conservative elements of the elite while the other is seen as the repository of its liberal elements; the presence of two agendas, old and new; and the exacerbation of the debate within the elite about the country's development options -- all of this makes an assessment of the Russian authorities' current policy difficult.

Anybody who folllows this stuff day-to-day can certainly sympathize with Stanovaya's analysis. To see this contradiction, one needs to look no farther than the ongoing debate over modernization.

A May 26 editorial in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" identified two camps: Medvedev's team, including his aide Arkadiy Dvorkovich, and Igor Yurgens, leader of the Institute of Contemporary Development:

[According to this group], modernization must touch all aspects of Russian reality, and the most important task is to open up unlimited opportunities for the creative self-realization of the individual. They propose to move toward this goal by means of large-scale political reforms, the creation of the conditions for political and economic competition, and the achievement of absolute freedom of the press, which will become an effective instrument for demolishing bureaucratic barriers and restricting monopolists.

A more conservative group, centered around Putin, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy Kremlin chief of staff, and Sergei Sobyanin, head of the government apparatus, warns that such a radical modernization program would bring back the chaos of the 1990s:

The perestroika and glasnost period led to the dismantlement of the political system, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the deformed democratic development of the post-Soviet republics, above all Russia itself. The standard of living of 90 percent of Russians in the 1990s fell below every thinkable limit. The gap between rich and poor reached colossal magnitudes. Freedom of the mass media was privatized by the oligarchs, who took control of the federal television channels. The country found itself on the brink of a new disintegration with the escalation of a 'parades of sovereignties' and the escalation of the war in the Caucasus. The moderate conservatives' camp never ceases to warn of the danger of a return of the nineties...The conservatives' position is straightforward: It is necessary to move toward renewal step by step in order to protect the country from possible collapse.

A newly released poll, meanwhile, shows that both Medvedev's and Putin's approval ratings have dropped sharply over the year, although both still enjoy healthy support.

According to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), 53 percent of Russian voters expressed confidence in Medvedev's job performance, down nine points from the 63 percent rating he enjoyed in January. Likewise, Putin saw his job approval rating drop to 61 percent, down from 69 percent in January.

Another poll by the Levada Center shows the public believing that Medvedev is becoming an increasingly independent figure, although most continue to see Putin as the dominant partner.

According to that poll, 46 percent believe that Medvedev has a strong influence on events in the country, up from 35 percent a year ago.

Some 42 percent said Medvedev was an independent politician, while 44 percent said he was under Putin's control. This is a significant change from a year ago when just 19 percent said Medvedev was independent and 68 percent said he was controlled by Putin.

Where this is all going, in terms of personell and policy, should begin to clarify a bit the closer we get to the December 2011 elections to the State Duma, which will set the stage for the March 2012 presidential poll.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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