Throughout the crisis surrounding the conflict between Russia and Georgia, Russia watchers have had their magnifying glasses out searching for cracks in the leadership tandem of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. When this unorthodox power structure emerged at the beginning of the year, analysts speculated that the first big crisis would expose its weaknesses.
Ironically, the Georgia war may have done just the opposite, demonstrating the strengths of this arrangement for the Kremlin's international-policy designs.
The creation of facades has been an essential and highly successful component of Putinism in Russia. Less than a decade into the Putin era, Russia is teeming with pseudo-independent media, pseudo-opposition political parties, pseudo-NGOs, pseudo-private businesses, and the like. When analysts speak of the country's "pseudo-democracy," they are referring to this, as well as to the pseudo-legislature and the pseudo-judiciary. How many times have we heard Putin say he "cannot influence the court's decision" in some trumped up case only to watch time and again as judges hand down the most outrageous, pro-Kremlin decisions? How many times have we heard that a matter is merely "a business dispute" only to see Kremlin insiders scoop up the choicest bits for themselves?
Now, Russia has a pseudo-head of state, Dmitry Medvedev. And dealing with him has definitely confused and delayed the international community's reaction to the crisis in Georgia. While French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in Moscow negotiating a cease-fire with Medvedev and later trumpeting his success back at home, Putin was in Vladikavkaz, carrying out Moscow's military, political, and economic strategies in Georgia. Without the distraction of swatting away the West's objections.
When the crisis first broke, Putin was in Beijing, as was U.S. President George W. Bush. In the old days, it would have been a potentially tense moment when the two men met to discuss the situation. However, under the new arrangement, one can easily imagine Putin listening impatiently to Bush's concerns, shrugging his shoulders, and saying, "Well, George, I don't really know what to say, but as soon as I get back to Moscow, I'll mention to the president what you said and I'm sure he'll get back to you real soon."
It has taken the West two weeks to realize that Russia is playing a whole new game, and part of that delay is due to the fact that it has been talking to and listening to a pseudo-leader. And the potential for the Kremlin to wring more advantage out of this nebulous situation -- with, for instance, Putin sending back-channel signals to some Western leaders while Medvedev continues his delaying actions -- would seem to be enormous.
-- Robert Coalson