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The latest tensions between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- or appearance thereof -- have sparked a lively debate in the Russian press about what is actually going on inside the tandem.

Recent articles by Yevgenia Albats and Yulia Latynina encapsulate the polemic.

Writing in "Novoye vremya" (New Times), Albats argues that with his assault on government ministers sitting on corporate boards Medvedev has made his move against his former mentor and the battle is finally on. "No more feeble excuses that it's all about the institutional rivalry within the state bureaucracy between the Kremlin and the government. It all comes down to the president and the premier now," she writes.

Albats also stresses Medvedev's criticism of the procurement practices at Transneft, Gazprom, and Russian Railways, which he described as "banal corruption." Each of these, she notes, is run by a Putin crony:

Considering that all the people Medvedev mentioned where either Vladimir Putin's pals from the Ozero [Dacha] cooperative [near St. Petersburg] or his KGB cronies, it seems clear that the president launched more than just an attack. He is looking for formal excuses to fire the prime minister and his government. In other words, Medvedev is trying to deprive Putin of administrative and financial resource before the battle for the Kremlin in 2012. Whether or not he decides to go for it and strike is not known. Whether or not Putin chooses to forestall and draw the first blood is not known. It is only known that the battle is finally joined...

The message was sent. The message was heard. The country is waiting for Putin's reaction. What will he do? Will he obey the president's order to remove [Deputy Prime Minister Igor] Sechin and Co. from the oil and gas industry? Will he defy the president? And if it is the latter, then what will the president do? Will he make the next step and dissolve the government? Medvedev has to strip his rival of financial and administrative leverage that goes with the premier's job. He has to stop Putin from having tame TV channels extolling him on a daily basis as they have been doing. It is his only chance in the battle for the Kremlin.

Writing in "Yezhednevnyy zhurnal," Latynina sees an entirely different reality. Instead of Medvedev making his move, she sees a lot of empty words with little action to back them up:

I have several questions for all those dreamers who write that a 'electoral struggle' is developing between Putin and Medvedev. First: Who is the voter? The voter in Russia exists in the singular, and he is called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. And this voter will decide who runs in the 2012 elections -- Putin or Medvedev. And it is not hard to imagine whom he will choose.

The second question. What, specifically, has Medvedev done in the past 3 years? The answer: He made constant promises. Just recently, he promised that state officials would leave the boards of directors of state corporations, and everyone is discussing this liberal wish. And why not discuss it? Medvedev said exactly the same thing three years ago. Shall we discuss how it was fulfilled?

Dismissing Medvedev as "the Twitter president," Latynina goes on to chide him for making promises -- to get to the bottom of things like Sergei Magnitsky's death in prison, the automobile accident involving Lukoil vice president Anatoly Barkov that killed two women, and the attack on journalist Oleg Kashin -- and not delivering:

President Medvedev is always reporting news to us in the future tense. He is demanding, exposing and expressing indignation. He so furiously criticizes corruption and lack of freedom, as if he were an oppositionist, and not a central figure in the mechanism for ensuring corruption and non-freedom. Who is he - a blogger, or a president?

She goes on to suggest that Medvedev is not all that different from Putin at the end of the day, citing his saber rattling with Japan over the Kurile Islands and his support for a police "reform" that many rights activists argue gives law-enforcement even more arbitrary power. "Medvedev is a part of the Putin power machine in the most direct, corrupt, sense of this word," Latynina writes.

She concludes by comparing Medvedev to...Putin's shoelace:

Undoubtedly, there are differences between Putin and Medvedev. These are differences between a man and his shadow, as Dmitriy Bykov so aptly wrote. Or, if you will, between a man and his shoelace. The shoelace feels bad that it is considered a shoelace, and not a person. And the person feels bad that the shoelace imagines something about itself. These are psychological, and not political, differences. No less. But also no more.

I have always considered Albats and Latynina to be two of the more astute Kremlin watchers on the scene. And the fact that they have looked at the same information and came to diametrically opposed conclusions is testament to just how opaque and fluid the current dynamic is.

Despite the apparent turbulence, for the time being I am sticking to my working hypothesis that Medvedev and Putin are stuck with each other and that the tandem will endure beyond 2012 -- with Medvedev as president and Putin as the dominant force in Russian politics.

What we have been seeing as of late (and as I blogged earlier in the week, this is not exactly a new phenomenon) is Medvedev becoming, if not a coequal partner in the ruling tandem, at least a less unequivocally subordinate co-ruler.

Putin still has the siloviki and will continue to have them. But Medvedev has won the loyalty of much of the technocratic part of the elite that will be a necessary player in any modernization of the country's economy. He has also won the trust of the West to a degree -- no small matter as Russia seeks investment to fuel its modernization.

But whoever is right about the politics, there is still the not-so-minor matter of what kind of policy Russia is going to pursue after 2012, regardless of who (either individually or collectively) is running the show after 2012.

Here is political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov writing in "RBC Daily":

Regardless of the actual strength and stability of the tandem, the presidential race is on. The president will probably be picked this year, and voters in 2012 will be only expected to confirm the choice. It is reasonable assume that the choice will be made in late 2011, after the parliamentary elections but before the New Year.

The next president will inevitably encounter serious problems. Economic problems will be particularly difficult to handle...

Second, the next president will finally have to finally tell society where they want to take Russia in the next 10-15 years.

Third, it will be necessary to do something about the social pessimism which is gradually deteriorating into irritation and bitterness. The public might start longing for a complete reset of the political system before long.
Fourth, the president will have to learn from the Middle East experience and initiate development and installation of bona fide political institutions.
Neither participant in the tandem (much less their teams)
knows answers to these questions at this point.

Have a nice weekend, everybody!

-- 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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