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The Power Vertical

Twelve Days That Shook The Kremlin

President Dmitry Medvedev (ight) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a congress of the United Russia ruling party in Moscow on September 24
President Dmitry Medvedev (ight) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a congress of the United Russia ruling party in Moscow on September 24
It took less than two weeks for the long-standing debate in Russia's ruling elite to come to a screeching halt.

On September 15, Mikhail Prokhorov abruptly resigned as chairman of Right Cause, casting a cloud over plans for a regime-friendly center-right party to enter the State Duma.

Ten days later, on September 24, United Russia nominated Vladimir Putin as its candidate for president in 2012, dashing the hopes of those who hoped to see Dmitry Medvedev remain in the Kremlin for a second term.

And two days later, on September 26, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin resigned following a public dustup ostensibly over military spending, removing one of the most strident advocates of fiscal probity and political reform from the government.

The managed-democracy project, if not dead, appears to be on life support at best (Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko may still yet get into the State Duma as a token liberal party). And with Putin set to occupy the Kremlin until 2024, any hopes for economic modernization and a gradual transition to more democratic governance have been buried.

But was this really preordained? In his speech at the United Russia congress, Medvedev provoked cries of betrayal from his supporters when he suggested as much, saying the decision for Putin to return was made "years ago."

The past four years could conceivably have been a big ruse, with only Putin and Medvedev in on the con -- but color me skeptical on that score. The evidence overwhelmingly points to a debate over how to proceed post-2012 among the inner core of the ruling elite. And one side won and one side lost -- decisively.

The result was the mirror image of the decision back in 2007-08, when Putin resisted the appeals of Igor Sechin, Viktor Ivanov, and others urging him to change the constitution and serve a third consecutive term.

This time, those seeking Putin's return to the Kremlin won the argument. And there was an argument, not just about the Putin-Medvedev question, but also the composition of the State Duma and whether United Russia would be allowed a continued constitutional majority.

The lines were often blurred and it wasn't always easy to determine who was on which side (with the exception of obvious advocates of a Putin return like Sechin and supporters of political reform like Kudrin). Some, like Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist, appeared to be playing both sides of the fence.

Back in June 2009, for example, Surkov appeared to telegraph the doomed Right Cause project when he argued that United Russia needed to share power in the Duma with other parties.

"We believe that once a system has settled, there should be more degrees of freedom inside it. One should be flexible, one should learn to enter into coalitions. Democracy is a compromise. Democracy is a procedure. It's a tedious one, but it's a procedure," Surkov said at the time.

Surkov's comments drew a harsh response from Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who said: "Our parliament of the majority based on one party is a necessity for Russia.... The parliamentary majority allows us to adopt laws that determine political and economic stability."

Looks like Gryzlov won that argument. Or Surkov had second thoughts.

Another sign of conflict inside the elite was the abrupt departure from the Kremlin in April of onetime uber-spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the key architects of Putin's first presidential campaign in 2000.

Pavlovsky was a vocal proponent of a second term for Medvedev, with Putin keeping a dominant role in Russian politics and was becoming increasingly critical of United Russia. And it was for these sins that he was reportedly pushed out into the wilderness.

In interviews after his firing, Pavlovsky said the elite was close to endorsing a second term for Medvedev but was getting cold feet.

"I think that, of course, that first and foremost, this debate is painful for Putin. Not easy for him to step aside. Also, he rightly fears that there could be instability in the bureaucracy after the nomination of a candidate," he told Gazeta.ru.

Moreover, on several occasions, Kudrin spoke out in favor of greater democracy -- at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum in February, in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal" in April, and in an interview with "The New York Times" in June.

Kudrin's basic argument was that effective economic reform was not possible without political reform because the authorities will need a "mandate of trust" from the people.

So the argument came down to this: one side argued that modernizing Russia's economy requires at least limited reforms of the political system while another argued that loosening things up politically could lead to instability and chaos.

Putin was going to be the key player in either scenario -- he could be the formal leader as president or an informal national leader and head of the deep state. Putin is indispensible because he is the power broker among the Kremlin clans and without him, open warfare among them would likely break out.

I expected, wrongly, Putin to choose the informal leader route. In a recent interview, longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, the international editor of "The Economist" and author of "The New Cold War," offered interesting insight into why Putin and a critical mass of the elite decided he had to return to the Kremlin:

The way the Russian system works, these formal channels of power are important. It isn't like China where you can have Deng Xiaoping behind the scenes or Singapore where you have Lee Kuan Yew behind the scenes. The paper flow matters, the signature matters, the pechat [stamp] matters. I think that it was a source of some awkwardness and instability for them that Medvedev was theoretically in the top job and so Putin had to have a guy in Medvedev's office managing the paper flow so people didn't run around behind him.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Mikhail Prokhorov,Gleb Pavlovsky,2011 State Duma elections,Putin-Medvedev tandem,2012 presidential election,Aleksei Kudrin

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by: Aurora from: Boston
October 05, 2011 22:02
There is a great confusion in the Kremlin on who is in charge... is it president Medvedev, Putin or perhaps puppetmaster himself Mr.Surkov. Wake up and do something usefull for the Motherland... or perhaps now that there are no brains left it's a hopless proposition?

by: Tangier Soto from: Germany
October 05, 2011 22:11
Kudrin's basic argument was that effective economic reform was not possible without political reform because the authorities will need a "mandate of trust" from the people.

Surkov has made all possible to the political parties loose a mandate of trust. Democracy, managed by Surkov, which he calls “democracy compromise”, is not a democracy at all: one ingredient is absent – a choice. Democracy, managed by Surkov in Russia will work bad. According to the polls, absolutely most people in Russia have basic liberal-democratic values. The matter of fact is that lot of people in Russia support Prokhorov, and would follow him, if he stays in politics. These people are young generation, middle class (40 of population of Moscow and 30% of the other cities), business class, intellectuals, they prefer liberal reforms, business support, modernization of economy and liberalization of politics. All this was presented by Prokhorov, which shows that he is the only strong candidate in politics, was courageous enough to manage deals, not to stay controlled by Surkov and and to to call things by their proper names.

Kudrin is right, effective economic reform are not possible without political reforms.

by: Pavel
October 07, 2011 13:53
This article is absolutely correct. These 12 days have demonstrated without doubt that democracy in Russia is moving backwards toward autocracy, not forward. Any educated Russian would tell you that if the parties would consolidate and support a charismatic and popular, articulate leader, this would bring real opposition to Putin and real change to Russia. This is why real political activity is so restricted. United Russia knows very well that the new generation is rising and will eventually demand a voice in their future. Either that, or they will flee the country, leaving United Russia with nothing in which to invest.,

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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