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Choose Or Lose?

Did President Dmitry Medvedev really tell Russia's top business leaders that the time had come for them to choose between him and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin?

The daily "Vedomosti" reported today that in a meeting on Monday with the heads of 27 major companies, both state-owned and private, Medvedev said that he and Putin "had different ideas concerning the future of the country" and they needed to pick sides. According to the report, Medvedev said he laid out his ideas for Russia's future in his speech last month at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, and appealed for their support.

"Vedomosti" based its report on interviews with participants in the closed-door meeting after the fact. Neither those interviewed nor the companies represented were identified.

Here are the money grafs from the story:

According to one of the participants, the president called the situation in the country complicated and said that the way it would develop actually depended on two people only - Vladimir Putin and himself. Medvedev said then that Putin and he had different ideas concerning the future of the country. According to another participant, the president said that the country had been on the track set by Putin these last several years, that he, Medvedev, had formulated his program in St. Petersburg, and that now he expected businessmen to choose the future of the country.

'Either we change the scenario of development or someone else will do so for us. It is time for businesses to decide," Medvedev said. One participant in the meeting said Medvedev's speech came down to the following: 'Decide. Either you support my program or you leave everything as it is. It's up to you.' 'The president made it plain that businesses had to decide who they wanted for president, Medvedev or Putin,' he said. "That was so unexpected that I was struck speechless.

That got Moscow pundits and journalists pretty excited. Discord in the tandem makes for great copy, after all.

But, as "Vedomosti" (responsibly) points out later in the story, not everyone at the meeting interpreted Medvedev's comments in the same way. One participant was quoted as saying that Medvedev's comments were "quite vague" and over interpreted by others present.

"Sure, I can imagine some people thinking that they were asked to choose their side. I believe, however, that they kind of got carries away. Personally I do not think that this is what the meeting was about," said a company owner, according to "Vedomosti." "That's wishful thinking."

Another participant told "Vedomosti" that all Medvedev was doing was indicating his desire to run, but that the issue was far from decided. "What he was saying was essentially this. Sure, I want [to run for a second term] but I do not know yet if I'm going to run for president... So, how are businesses supposed to decide when the president himself is not certain yet?" the participant said.

So what really happened? Beats me. But my instincts, and my understanding of the current political dynamics, tend to favor the latter -- less dramatic -- interpretation of Medvedev's comments.

In a recent post I cited an interview Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin gave to "The New York Times" in which he said that although there are nuances in the positions of Medvedev and Putin on issues of economic reform, both were essentially on the same page.

"They understand it a little bit differently," Kudrin said. "As a whole, yes, they understand it. Probably they are ready -- I think they are ready for this work. I know this from our discussions. This is why, in principle, Russia will improve its investment climate and carry out reforms under either leader."

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service today, Oleg Kiselyev, deputy chairman of the Russian Nanotechnologies Corporation, or Rosnano, made a similar point:

I would not proceed at this time from the banal assessment that Medvedev represents progressive change and Putin favors conservative positions. For me it's not yet clear. Yes, the statements Dmitry Medvedev are reformist. However, there are many historical examples where leaders have been in power for a long time and had the strength to offer a new paradigm of development. Therefore, I would still wait for a message of sufficient precision from the prime minister.

As I have blogged before, my working assumption is that Medvedev and Putin are the leading members of a core "team" of elite officials and business leaders who are now deciding how Russia's political and economic development should proceed into 2012 and beyond.

These are disagreements and bitter rivalries within the team, most notably between Kudrin and the economic technocrats on one hand (who favor deeper reforms) and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and the siloviki (who want to preserve as much of the status quo as possible) on the other.

The trend at this point is in the direction of tightly managed pluralism in the political system and a tightly controlled liberalization of the economy. Most realize that changes must be made, but they are absolutely terrified of losing control of the process.

They have learned the lessons of the Brezhnev period -- that a top-heavy economy can become stagnant and bring down a superpower. But they have also learned the lessons of Perestroika and the 1990s -- that uncontrolled reform can spin out of control and bring down the whole house of cards.

-- Brian Whitmore

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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