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The Devil's Advocate

Baby steps?
Baby steps?

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

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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