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Russia's Teetering Tandem

Tandem skiing near Sochi on January 4.
Tandem skiing near Sochi on January 4.

Political analysts in Russia have been writing that the emergence of the word "tandem" into everyday usage was a key domestic development of 2008. And, inevitably, since the emergence of this unique political arrangement -- in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have worked out some sort of nebulous arrangement on the sharing of power and the trappings of power -- analysts have been looking for signs that it is breaking down.

Indeed, it seems an inherently instable proposition and assertions by pro-Kremlin observers that Putin and Medvedev are "like-minded" (yedinomyshlenniki) are not persuasive. In addition, of course, these assertions run counter to hopes, still sometimes heard, that the lawyer Medvedev is somehow more liberal and democratically minded than the former KGB operative Putin.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta," in its end-of-the-year editorial (which I discussed in part here) on December 30, offered an interesting bit of insight into why the Kremlin has been in such a hurry to extend the presidential term of office from four years to six, a tidbit that also seems to point to the instability of the tandem. The daily argues that the main motive for the extension is that Putin doesn't like to be a "lame duck." "The very possibility of a new, prolonged presidency for Putin has a disciplinary effect on the Russian elite," the paper writes.

Perhaps the turmoil within the ruling elite during the 2007-08 transition, which seemed quite smoothly managed from the outside, was more discomfiting to the Kremlin than we previously thought.

The daily goes on to point out again the instability of the tandem arrangement, although it spins this instability as a plus: "[The elite] desperately wants certainty -- what goes where? It wants to have one leader, one apparatus, and one circle of influence. But there are two leaders and two apparatuses and several centers of influence. Such a balance is a fortunate factor for the country. The competition of apparatuses creates a better environment for freedom for all. Sometimes it even facilitates the adoption of correct decisions."

"Balance" and "competition" can be good things in structured environments, but they seem hard to achieve and maintain in the Russian context.

RFE/RL's Russian Service today made the rounds of some leading analysts to ask how they think the tandem is faring as it nears its first birthday. And there is absolutely no consensus.

Political scientist Mark Urnov, for instance, sees the financial crisis as bringing the two leaders closer together and strengthening the tandem:

The current crisis is really very deep, and it is hard to predict its consequences. It is unclear how long it will last and the mechanisms for controlling the crisis are not yet very well worked out. It think that all the contradictions and fault lines that have been discussed and that were visible in the behavior of the Putin and Medvedev teams are moving into the background. The popularity of the authorities is falling and disenchantment is building. Regional elites and business elites are beginning to act differently from how they acted previously.... In a situation where political stability and the very existence of the regime is threatened, I do not think that some sort of power struggle will erupt between these two people who are very extensively connected.

Ironically, Urnov thinks the tandem would have been less stable in a more favorable environment, when the elites would have nothing to do but squabble over political and economic morsels.

Stanislav Belkovsky feels that the war in Georgia in August strengthened the tandem because it formed something of a loyalty test for Medvedev, which Belkovsky believes the president passed to Putin's satisfaction. But the current economic crisis is different and will call for a new arrangement. He thinks the form of that arrangement has not yet been decided, but notes that Putin must be place above the fray:

In my view, the prospect of Vladimir Putin returning to the Kremlin is absolutely unrealistic. And the entire question is whether Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev can together find a more honored place for the current prime minister than what he has now. If not, then Putin will carry the burden of responsibility for the crisis and so on -- especially since over the next 18 months the country is going to be engulfed in the flames of crisis. All economic indicators are going to worsen and social tensions will grow, and only one person can answer for that. Now it is clear who that person is.

Like Belkovsky, Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Nikolai Petrov believes the key problem for the tandem is Putin's position of perceived responsibility for the crisis, but unlike Belkovsky, he sees Putin returning to the Kremlin and the dismantling of the tandem entirely:

It would be naive to think that Putin's popularity rating could fall and Medvedev's could remain high. Moreover, a fall in Putin's rating would be extremely dangerous for the political system and for each citizen. Therefore, I think that for both Putin and Medvedev, and for the entire political system, it would be beneficial to distance Putin from all problems and carry out a "castling" maneuver. That is, return Putin to the presidency and alternate technical prime ministers who would really be able to take the fall every six months for all the difficulties that the crisis is bringing and will bring. I simply don't see any other way for Putin to maintain his position in the system and his high rating except by returning to the presidency.

If Petrov and Belkovsky prove correct -- and the haste with which the Kremlin pushed the presidential term extension through would seem to indicate that Putin at least is preparing an escape hatch, even if returning to the Kremlin is not his current Plan A -- the word tandem may disappear from common parlance as suddenly as it appeared. And Russian authoritarianism will return to a more honest form.

-- Robert Coalson

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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