Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Medvedev Legacy

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with students in the journalism faculty of Moscow's State University on January 25
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with students in the journalism faculty of Moscow's State University on January 25
After being largely -- and conspicuously -- absent from the news for weeks, Dmitry Medvedev spoke today at Moscow State University.
The Russian president touted recent proposals to reform the electoral system, saying "these [old] rules are not working." He reassured students that "nobody is imposing" censorship in Russia, adding that this would be "impossible in the modern world."
And he insisted that his political career wasn't over. "I've never said that I will not run for office again. I will remind you that I'm only 46 and this is not an old enough age to give up any future political battles," Medvedev said.
I don't think anybody believed him. In fact, I wonder if anybody outside the hall he spoke in was even paying attention.
Since Medvedev announced on September 24 that he would not seek another term as president, it has been easy to dismiss him as a political lightweight, a placeholder who kept the Kremlin warm for Vladimir Putin's return and is now destined to become little more than a historical footnote.
But depending upon how the current political crisis is resolved, Medvedev's little presidency-with-an-asterisk could actually turn out to be quite consequential for Russia.
This is true less because of anything he accomplished in office than because of the role he played, how he played it, and the way the ruling class and broader public reacted to his time in office.
Despite his weakness -- or perhaps because of it -- Medvedev unleashed political forces in the elite and in society that are now reaching critical mass. Whether this was intentional or inadvertent is largely irrelevant -- it happened and Russia is a changed country as a result.
According to most conventional wisdom, Putin chose Medvedev as his temporary successor back in 2008 because he was a weak and pliant figure.

He didn't hail from the siloviki clan of tough security-service veterans. He lacked the charisma and bureaucratic muscle to build a team and forge a political identity independent of Putin. There was little risk of him getting any bright ideas about staying in the Kremlin any longer than his patron wanted him there.
Could Putin have been so sure about Sergei Ivanov -- the other possible successor in 2008 -- their long friendship and shared KGB past notwithstanding? I doubt it.
Medvedev remained loyal to Putin, and there was never any doubt about who was really in charge.
But in forming the tandem and turning Medvedev into his political alter ego, Putin unintentionally created a vessel for the hopes and aspirations of the technocratic wing of the ruling elite -- which had been playing second fiddle to the siloviki clan of security-service veterans for nearly a decade.
The technocrats clearly believed that the time for political reform had come -- and appeared to see in Medvedev a vehicle for realizing it. They wanted Perestroika 2.0 and over the course of his presidency they became increasingly vocal about it.
Splits began appearing shortly after Medvedev was inaugurated. 
Medvedev advisers Igor Yurgens and Arkady Dvorkovich, Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin began calling for political reform. Siloviki like Igor Sechin and Sergei Ivanov, meanwhile, lobbied for the continuation of the status quo.

This schism became increasingly manifest throughout Medvedev's presidency. 
Moreover, Medvedev's softer style (his Twitter account, his love for Deep Purple) and his rhetoric about modernization and reform -- event though it wasn't followed up by any real action -- set expectations in society, especially among the urban middle class, that change was coming. As the professional class became accustomed to the more benevolent optics of the Medvedev presidency, it became more wedded to the idea of reform -- and more allergic to a return of Putinism.
With the blogger president sitting in the Kremlin with his iPad, the Internet came of age as a political tool in Russia. Independent online media outlets like Dozhd TV were born and blogging platforms like LiveJournal blossomed and thrived.
Protest actions became more brazen and more creative, with groups like the art collective Voina making waves with a series of offbeat demonstrations.
Society was changing and it was obvious to anybody paying attention.
The catalyst that sparked the regime's current legitimacy crisis, of course, was the United Russia congress on September 24, when it was announced that Medvedev would step aside and Putin would return to the Kremlin. 
Rather than rally around the decision, the elite became more bitterly divided -- and society became more restless.
And the tandem suddenly lost its mojo.
Medvedev looked weak and irrelevant. Putin, who liked to style himself as a strong leader in the tradition of tsarist-era Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin or Soviet leader Yury Andropov, suddenly was being compared to the doddering Leonid Brezhnev. Suddenly, he was being booed at sporting events.
By the time the parliamentary elections rolled around in December, the stage was set for a revolt.
Nobody knows how the current political crisis will play itself out, and those who claim to know are fooling themselves. But the seeds of the dramatic developments we are now seeing were planted during Medvedev's presidency.
This is his legacy, even though he is unlikely to be its beneficiary.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Dmitry Medvedev,Russian elite,Russian society

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
January 25, 2012 19:25
"Nobody knows how the current political crisis will play itself out, and those who claim to know are fooling themselves. But the seeds of the dramatic developments we are now seeing were planted during Medvedev's presidency."

You contradict yourself, and hence indicate you yourself are fooling yourself, contrary to your own advice. There are no "dramatic developments" as yet, absolutely nothing has happened, just a little milling around in Moscow. By your own standard, maybe nothing dramatic ever will happen. Maybe Putin will easily win reelection just as he would have a year ago. Maybe he will remain president for the rest of his life. Maybe he will continue his crackdown on civil society, and maybe nobody will lift a finger to oppose him. Maybe the planned February protest will not show any signficant increase in size, and maybe nobody will step forward who is prepared to fight for inclusion on the March ballot. Maybe Russians will stand mute as they did in time of Stalin, indeed as they did when Putin was handed power by Yeltsin, who had bombed their parliament.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: Netherlands
January 27, 2012 20:06
And maybe they won't. You're making just as many assumptions here as you accuse Mr Whitmore of making.

You're expressing your opinion, he's expressing his. Time will tell.

by: John from: Canada
January 25, 2012 21:11
Maybe if Medvedev had followed-up on his promise to stop Khimki forest from being decimated, he might have reduced Evgenia Chrikova's interest in political activism?

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 26, 2012 01:44
I would argue that all of the positive/liberal changes you ascribe to Medvedev had their origins (or at least the blessing) of Putin. Believe it or not, Putin probably understands that Russia needs to modernize and reform its political system.
In Response

by: Mamuka
January 26, 2012 11:06
Yes Putin understands that Russia needs to modernize. But he doesnt want it to spiral out of control like happened for Gorbachev. Which is why he is against any real political reform.
In Response

by: Mamuka
January 30, 2012 16:07
Article on BBC Russian today:

Путин обещает экономические реформы без политических


So they agree with me! takoi ja molodets

by: shay from: usa
January 26, 2012 20:04
Ray - Putin couldn't care less about the modernization of Russia, unless of course it is necessary for his own personal survival. And I don't just mean his political survival, I mean his physical survival. Putin knows that if he is removed from power his many enemies will begin encircling him with designs on his imprisonment, the desire for payback is inevitable. Putin's options for a life in exile are few, perhaps Belarus, or even Venezuela if he prefers sunnier climes, but if either do offer him sanctuary these dictators risk putting their own survival in jeopardy. Putin knows that technology and the internet have sewn the seeds for his eventual downfall, and he will hold on for as long as he can, because he will not contemplate the alternative. The Soviet Union collapsed because the USA raised the stakes in the arms race, the USSR could not compete on a technological basis with the American war machine, a lesson that has not gone unnoticed by Putin. He may very well avoid sitting televised debates and steal the upcoming March election, but the writing is on the wall and it is only a matter of time before shots are fired and blood is spilt as Putin decides to stamp out the rising dissent and reassert—through violence—his deadly grip on political power.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 28, 2012 03:00
Maybe you are right, and Putin is 100% scheming scoundrel, only concerned with his personal welfare, and has used/abused his power over the past decade to create a brittle dictatorship. I certainly don’t want to be known as a ‘Putin defender,’ but unfortunately, the Russian people still have yet to learn that as citizens of their formidable country, the state ought to derive its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Might be apocryphal, but I once heard that Putin is more democratic than 70% of the Russian population.

Again, I’ve never met Putin, and I know that the modern media can distort the truth of a person, but from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think Putin is quite as evil as you suggest. The Putin of 2012 is different from that of 1999, and the point I was trying to make is that the positive changes begun under Medvedev would have likely never occurred without Putin’s consent. (I would not worry about Putin’s retirement location. In our world today, he could easily buy the most lavish townhouse in any of the ‘established democracies.')

You shouldn’t measure Russians with your American eyeballs. Most Russians I know prefer corrupt stability over chaotic democracy.

Finally, the reasons behind the collapse of the USSR are manifold. Increased defense expenditures by the US may have played a role, and alas, might serve as the primal fault in wrecking this republic.
In Response

by: shay from: usa
January 30, 2012 19:26
I disagree, I believe Putin to be a supremely evil individual, one who's restraint has been determined by more powerful forces in the West where Putin and his cronies sell Russia's extracted wealth and stash their ill-gotten gains. The only reason Putin hasn't slaughtered 500,000 civilians is because its consequence in this globalized era is that the West would be forced to remove him. But have you overlooked the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who were slaughtered in the second Chechen war, which materialized as a vanity project in order to propel Putin into the presidency on the back of his tough-guy persona? And what about the unresolved murder of 300 Moscow citizens in their bombed high rise apartments in 1999 which advanced the appetite for war, and the Ryazan cover-up which pointed the finger of guilt at Putin's FSB? What do you know of the occupants of Dagestani and Inghusetian refugee camps? What about the captives at the Moscow theatre or the school in Beslan who were needlessly sacrificed to Putin's brute force when he refused to allow impartial negotiations to continue The KGB mindset has always been that the lives of individual citizens are expendable for the greater good of the Kremlin elite, and is not such a mindset in itself evil? What about the murder of Putin's critics, namely Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Markelov and Estemirova to name but a few, and the elimination of Sergei Magnitsky because his stand against corruption posed a threat to the foundations and corrupt methods behind Putin's Power Vertical? I do not agree that Putin can retreat to a mansion somewhere in the democratic west, because he will ultimately be held accountable by his legitimate successors when democracy does arrive in Russia. Sometimes I suspect that Putin's apologists in the west are more inspired by Russia's low corporate tax rates and by the prospect of acquiring/laundering the Siloviki's ill-gotten gains.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
January 31, 2012 18:03
Shay, you forgot to mention the Kursk submarine disaster. Putin could only have been directly involved in such a catastrophe, because a rescue could have saved the lives of those trapped Russian sailors, and somebody in the Kremlin decided it was better to let them die than for him to face accountability or humiliation. There is also the forest fires that singed the outskirts of Moscow a few years ago, largely because Putin cut the number of forest ranger in Russia, and there was no one to fight the fires that raged on for weeks. Ray makes some sensible statements, especially this one:

"Increased defense expenditures by the US may have played a role, and alas, might serve as the primal fault in wrecking this republic."

but I have to agree with you regarding Putin. He is extremely evil, and left unchecked could make the world a very unpleasant place.

by: Vachtang from: Moscow
January 28, 2012 03:38
Of course very funny to see this farce
When Medvedev has publicly stated that he was dummy president.
Тhey are so arrogant, that do not even consider it necessary to conceal it.

Of course, anyone would agree to be president of Russia, even a dummy, even Mr. Whitmore, what to write various articles on different characters would have stood behind the podium and read a paper written by Putin.
People is vane,everything is sold everything can be bought, everything has its price...Yes?..Mr.Whitmore??

All these actions of Putin show that he does not care for people
The question is, when it was transformed into a person that considers people for trash and spits on these contemptible fellows.

With regard to the Medvedev legacy
What about the Yeltsin legacy?
Сrazy drunk abolished the electoral system in Russia, drunk 24 hours a day, Yeltsin drunk in a state of drunkenness, dancing and reeling in the Kremlin.

Рeople say, "Yeltsin?"" Alcoholic who drank from morning till night"

Рeople will say: "Remember Medvedev? '." Of course, remember! ". "This is the one that played the Chinese idol"

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 30, 2012 23:08
Shay, Again, you might be right, and Putin is the devil incarnate, and the list of crimes you mention might have been masterminded by this evil ruler to secure his hold on power. The evidence that I’ve examined and my understanding of how this sorry world operates suggest otherwise. Each of the incidents you ascribe to Putin’s nefarious nature has a deep and complex history, not quite suitable to a blog post. I’m not an expert, but I have studied most of these ‘crimes,’ and while Putin may have played some part, he alone was not responsible. Pinning all the blame on him is both handy and false.

When you refer to the all powerful ‘west,’ and its ability to remove wicked rulers, who exactly are you referring to? From a Russian perspective, there are thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis, victims of an ‘evil’ western ruler (who, unfortunately, will never be put on trial for starting a war under false pretenses). You hold a much more optimistic view of western leadership than the average Russian. Don’t want to burst any of your bubbles, but would suggest you follow just where the ill-gotten gains from Russia are flowing. Just like in Russia, the rot goes to the very top. Corruption, whether in a leather jacket or three-piece suit, is a universal phenomenon.
In Response

by: shay from: usa
January 31, 2012 15:36
Ray - Two points:
1. I never said Putin alone was responsible, indeed he represents many Nomenklatura special interests (though not the welfare of his people). But I do say that he was the main beneficiary of these killings.
2. If Putin slaughtered as many civilians as he'd like to, the world would move for full embargo of Russia on sales of oil and gas. That would put an end to his autocratic farce.

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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