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The Power Vertical

The Devil's Advocate

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President Dmitry Medvedev meets with representatives of "Novaya gazeta" and makes surprisingly enlightened utterances while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is out of the country. Medvedev's supporters in the Duma are stalling and trying to amend a draft law submitted by Putin's supporters that would expand the definition of treason.

 

The president's economic advisers reportedly have views on how to handle the country's economic crisis that differ from those of the prime minister's team. Medvedev has even leveled some mild public criticism at the government's policies, prompting Putin's spokesman to go to the media and explain that such criticism is "perfectly natural." Putin reportedly wanted a senior Interior Ministry official in the Far East sacked for balking at orders to disperse demonstrations forcibly, while Medvedev said no.

 

These and other droppings from the Kremlin have led many observers toward the conclusion that the tandem in Russia is on the verge of breaking down. I myself wrote here about the country's "teetering tandem." But what if teetering is a natural feature of a normally functioning diarchy? What if the examples cited above are actually signs that the governing system is functioning and that it has more political flexibility and resilience than we previously expected?

 

The way you look at the evidence, I think, depends on what you think "tandem" rule actually is. Many of us proceeded from the indisputable fact that Putin was the dominant figure in Russian politics when the tandem was installed and that he remains the dominant figure now to conclude that the so-called tandem is really just a fig leaf covering up Putin's ongoing autocratic control. Perhaps what we are seeing now in Russia -- where the ruling system is undergoing genuine stress from the bleak economic circumstances -- is the breakdown of the fig-leaf theory, more than the collapse of the diarchy.

 

Adherents of the fig-leaf theory, including myself, never really came up with a satisfactory answer as to why Putin, who last fall and winter enjoyed massive popularity and controlled every political lever in Russia and stood absolutely alone in the political field, needed a fig leaf at all.

It seems clear that he could have remained president or installed himself as leader-for-life or national leader or whatever without any difficulty. Not only was the public ready for such a move, the ruling elite (which always fears change and new faces) would have welcomed it as well. The best explanation we could muster was something about how he didn't want to come off in the West looking like a petty Central Asian dictator, but this reasoning rings hollow considering how contemptuous Putin has been of the West's opinions in numerous other contexts.

 

But leaving aside speculation about Putin's real intentions for a moment, we should consider his stated intentions (and those of people like Vladislav Surkov, his architect of domestic sociopolitical policy). They have always maintained that what they are building in Russia is not a totalitarian state or an autocracy, but a "managed democracy" or a "sovereign democracy" or some such phraseology. What these pronouncements have boiled down to is the idea of moving Russia gradually from the "lawless 1990s" -- when political disputes were solved through murder and blackmail, through the predatory abuse of the media, through cynical corruption -- to a recognizably democratic system.

But -- and this is the key -- this transition would be handled in a managed, step-by-step way that did not endanger the country's national security or its economy or its political stability or its territorial integrity.

 

Tandem rule or diarchy, arguably, could be a logical step in such a transition. Putin, like many political analysts, saw that his favored policy of relying on relatively close acquaintances from the security services or from St. Petersburg had reached its limits and realized that he needed an enlarged system that would necessarily be more inclusive and pluralistic. Although, of course, he insisted on meticulously "managing" this enlargement, choosing Medvedev and his circle as the first step. If this slightly enlarged system collapses under the strains of the current economic mess, one could argue that Putin moved too quickly to liberalize his authoritarian system rather than that he moved too slowly.

 

There are, of course, many convincing arguments and many passionate voices arguing that Putin's centralization went way too far during the economic boom days and that more could have been done then to build democratic institutions that would have made the system more stable now, more able to handle the current crisis. But there is also evidence that the establishment of the tandem has meant an increase in political diversity within the ruling elite. Former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh and other former SPS luminaries like Leonid Gozman seem to think so, at least.

 

Look at the supposed evidence for the breakdown of the tandem that I enumerated in at the beginning of this post. They would seem to only indicate a "breakdown" if your definition of tandem is a system in which the two leaders walk in virtual lockstep, agreeing on every single point. Or if what you really mean by "tandem" is a system in which one leader (Putin) is really in charge and the other is just a figurehead, which, of course, is not a tandem at all.

 

Suppose that Putin wanted to fire the Interior Ministry official in the Far East and Medvedev did not. As far as we know, this "crisis" was resolved without any extra-systemic activity: no one was killed; no malicious kompromat appeared in the press; the elite was not drawn into a conflict and forced to choose sides. In fact, this purported dispute was seemingly resolved so seamlessly that we can't even be sure it happened at all.

 

Or take the dispute over the bill on expanding the definition of treason. The bill does seem to be stalled in the Duma and it does seem likely that a modified version will eventually emerge from the current wrangling. But is this a sign of a system in crisis, or a sign of a slightly pluralistic system reaching compromise through a normal legislative process? As far as pluralism goes, such wrangling is a far cry from what Russia had in the late Soviet period and the early post-Soviet period, but it also seems at least one step removed from the sort of authoritarian control that is usually considered an attribute of Putinism.

 

Interestingly, the dispute over the treason bill was first reported as unsubstantiated political rumor in "Novoye vremya." It was confirmed and elaborated upon, however, by first deputy presidential-administration head Surkov, who gathered reporters for a wide-ranging (although little-covered) discussion of the future of the political system in Russia. The report of that meeting in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" -- and the very fact that Surkov is sitting down and discussing such topics with journalists -- does not reveal any sign of panic on his part. Instead, he seems to me to be proceeding with the implementation of "managed democracy" in a methodical, if often illiberal, way.

 

It seems clear that discontent in Russia is growing rapidly and taking many new forms, some of them unexpected. Analysts have wondered whether the Putin system, even if one accepts the idea that it has taken one or two baby steps toward political pluralism, has the flexibility to cope with the coming crisis. Clearly, there are huge swathes of political opinion that have no outlet in Russia, and there are powerful segments of the ruling elite whose first instinct in a crisis is to reach for the knout.

 

But it seems to me mistaken at this point to see signs of political debate necessarily as evidence of a breakdown. They may instead be indicative of a system that is flexing as designed to cope with strain. The real question in all this is Putin's attitude. How much appetite for pluralism does he have? He still has the political clout to brush aside any resistance -- but maybe he has the wisdom not to use that clout brutishly.

 

-- Robert Coalson

Tags: instability, Vladimir Putin, medvedev, Russia, Putin-Medvedev tandem

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Comments
     
by: La Russophobe from: USA
January 31, 2009 00:21
What needs to be understood is the difference between "surprisingly enlightened utterances" and actually advancing the cause of justice and democracy. A reasonably intelligent KGB spy, faced with a massive setback in the nation's economy, would realize that he needs to undercut the impetus among his enemies to take advantage of that setback. Thus, he'd tell any number of ridiculous lies about his intentions. Meanwhile, things would go on just as before.

This was the whole point of bringing in Medvedev in the first place (as well as having a convenient fall guy for the crisis).

Pluralism? The Duma has become much less plural, not more by even the slightest baby step.

by: rkka from: usa
January 31, 2009 16:48
Hm. Some real thinking there, Robert. Thank you.

Phoby, Phoby, Phoby... You haven't picked up that the economy is the responsibility of the Prime Minister, Mr. Putin. If there's a "fall guy" for the economic crisis, it's Putin.

Well, sound analysis based on facts never was your strong point.

by: Adrian from: USA
January 31, 2009 18:07
Intruiging article, although I imagine that Medvedev lacks enough (any?) support in the FSB and the military, and hence, even if he had disagreements of substance with Putin, would have very little room to move in. Like Fradkov and others, Medvedev seems chosen precisely for being weak and non-descript...

by: Peter Lavelle from: Moscow, Russia
February 02, 2009 08:29
Rob, interesting blog. Instead of addressing many of your observations and conclusions, I wrote a blog of my own on the subject of protests against the Russian government.

The title is:
"Russia is not exceptional"
http://www.russiatoday.com/employee/27

by: Andrew from: Auckland
February 02, 2009 10:42
RKKA, thinking at all was never your dtrong point. As for "quisling" Lavelle, everyone knows that Russia Today is a state sponsored Goebels style mouthpeice for Russian propaganda. See the coverage given to the young chap who defected recently for details.

by: Rothrock from: Baltimore, USA
February 02, 2009 15:15
You do an excellent job in this article singling out what is at the heart of any intelligent discussion about Russian politics, namely questioning whether we should view managed democracy cynically or otherwise.



Peter Lavelle, despite working for a "Goebels style mouthpiece," has a good point that I think any Russian would be quick to highlight: that there are protests all across Europe right now regarding the recession (or "the crisis," as it seems panicky Europeans are fonder of calling it).



Though Lavelle takes up a fundamentally counter-position to the central tenet of your article here (arguing that Russia is normal, whereas you argue that Russia is on a peculiar, developing path), the conclusion is the same: we cannot, for the time being, conclude anything apocalyptic about the state of Russian politics.



Russia-watchers will just have to keep their eyes peeled and see if the power vertical resorts to something drastic, or if Russia's development continues down the path to some form of Western democracy (as you argue) or continues to exist as it already is, some form of Western democracy (as the Goebels style mouthpiece argues).

by: Rothrock from: Baltimore, USA
February 02, 2009 15:26
You do an excellent job in this article singling out what is at the heart of any intelligent discussion about Russian politics, namely questioning whether we should view managed democracy cynically or otherwise.



Peter Lavelle, despite working for a "Goebels style mouthpiece," has a good point that I think any Russian would be quick to highlight: that there are protests all across Europe right now regarding the recession (or "the crisis," as it seems panicky Europeans are fonder of calling it).



Though Lavelle takes up a fundamentally counter-position to the central tenet of your article here (arguing that Russia is normal, whereas you argue that Russia is on a peculiar, developing path), the conclusion is the same: we cannot, for the time being, conclude anything apocalyptic about the state of Russian politics.



Russia-watchers will just have to keep their eyes peeled and see if the power vertical resorts to something drastic, or if Russia's development continues down the path to some form of Western democracy (as you argue) or continues to exist as it already is, some form of Western democracy (as the Goebels style mouthpiece argues).

by: La Russophobe from: USA
February 03, 2009 12:47
The shamelessly dishonest Kremlin shill Peter Lavelle repeats the ridiculous canard that "Russia is not exceptional" as if he discovered fire. In fact, that absurd statement has been repeated for decades by pro-dictatorship filth who want to rationalize atrocity and abuse. There's a famous old Soviet joke which sums it up: An American hotel guest in Moscow complains to the manager about poor service, and the manager responds by saying "yes, but you lynch blacks."

The fact that other countries have problems does not have anything to do with Russia. You never hear liars like Mr. Lavelle pointing to American successes, like the election of Barack Obama, and demanding that Russia emulate them as well. Only foreign faults, apparently, are relevant to the Russian story, as a way of explaining why all is right with the world in Russia.

This same attitude, verbatim, drove the USSR into the ashcan of history. With "friends" like Peter Lavelle, Russia needs no enemies.

Russia's stock market is down 75%, more than twice as much as America's. Russia has squandered half its FOREX reserves, and its currency has lost a third of its value in six months. It has double digit inflation, unemployment is out of control, the average man doesn't live to see his 60th year, and all Lavelle can do is talk about how Russia isn't exceptional.

It sure isn't! By any measure you can name, Russia is an abject failure on the brink of disintegration, and it apparently feels no need to make any changes.

And so it goes in Russia. One has to wonder what Russia has ever done to the likes of Lavelle to make him work so feverishly for its ultimate destruction.

by: Storvig from: N.J., U.S.A.
February 04, 2009 10:52
La Russophobe is right to support skepticism with regard to words offered by members of the Russian government.
This is true for Medvedev as well as for Putin (well, they are members...). The fact that new tones have been sounded from the government does not mean that the government's perspective on anything has changed. Let us assume for a while that very little of what is said by Russian officials is said by accident, and that the government has "strategic goals." Who knows why Medvedev chose to meet with the Novaya Gazeta editor and Gorbachev... I think we can ignore this gesture. It does not necessarily do Medvedev discredit -- maybe it does him credit, but these would be the results of functions that have not yet done their work -- so we cannot draw conclusions at this time. When official words start seeming to one to offer the basis for knowledge, prediction, certainty, rather indirect insights like 'hope' or 'concern,' then one might think that things had changed.
At this time, Medvedev is a variable in some inscrutible formula, with complementarily unknown parameters. Do we not know why? The layer of governmental space in Russia where apolitical power is naturally resident is very small. So much is political, and the political institution is much stronger than most others. I hope that Medvedev sympathizes with liberalizing forces in Russia. But what is the point of this hope? If a Russian citizen holds such a hope, there is probably very little of his effort underlying such a hope to give it durability.
Medvedev might turn out to be genuinely a relatively liberal force, offering some response to Putin, but this would be by accident. There is little reason to predict such things. Probably, one of the notable characteristics of Russian government is that very little can be predicted with much confidence. Very little is known, and to try to predict with confidence is often self-undermining. We may know why, as well.
I would remain skeptical of Medvedev and anyone else arising seemingly-quietly out of the Russian government system. And would we be surprised to see a Liberal siren appear in Russian power?
So, the idea that Medvedev's gesture is part of a strategy that transcends daily issues seems pretty reasonable.

The Moscow Times has an opinion article written by Vladimir Ryzhkov, called "Medvedev the Sham Liberal." It offers a pointed perspective.

by: Na from: Na
February 19, 2009 17:39
Lavelle is a vile apologist, more importantly he exemplifies the current situation in Russia by steadfastly spewing the current line of the government in nearly every matter.

I wonder how people employed to perpetuate propoganda, or at least a semblance of impartiality are able to do so without conflicts of conscience.

I want to see one critical post by him, and see if he is still employed. What are the chances?

Well there you are, he perfectly demonstrates the situation, an object lesson if ever there was one.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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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