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The Unraveling: The Tandem's Slow Death

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meet in the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana in March.
Gleb Pavlovsky is talking.
He talked to the British daily "The Guardian" last month, for example. And he talked to Yevgenia Albats at "New Times" just last week.
Talking out of school has gotten Pavlovsky into trouble in the past and actually appears to have gotten him fired from his Kremlin job last year. Nonetheless, when it comes to Russian politics, he usually knows what he is talking about.
So what exactly is Pavlovsky talking about? In fact, he's talking rather candidly about the question that has been on a lot of Kremlin-watchers' minds for the past six months: what led to the decision, announced at the United Russia congress on September 24, 2011, that Vladimir Putin would return to the Kremlin?
(I took a stab at this with a post back in October, but I am not -- to say the least -- anywhere near as informed or plugged in as Pavlovsky.)

Almost from the get-go, according to the Kremlin's former uber-spinmeister, there was a lack of clarity among the elite about what the tandem arrangement between Putin and Medvedev was supposed to ultimately mean.
For some, including Pavlovsky himself, former deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, and much of the elite's technocratic wing, it was a clever way to transition out of the authoritarian system Putin built into a more pluralistic model.
But for people like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and the siloviki wing of the elite, it was nothing more than a chess move to keep Putin in power without violating the letter of the constitution. And if you can believe what Medvedev and Putin themselves say about how their castling move was agreed to back in 2008, this was also how the tandem itself viewed the arrangement -- at least in the beginning.
"The whole problem was that four years ago it seemed to us that the tandem was a good form of transit but it turned out that this was simply the old Russian form of a private deal built into the constitutional system and destroying it, naturally," Pavlovsky said in his "New Times" interview.
Political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky
Political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky
Speaking to "The Guardian," Pavlovsky stressed that Surkov -- who was dismissed from his Kremlin post in December -- understood more than anyone the danger of Putin attempting a return to the presidency.
"Surkov saw Medvedev staying as the preferable option. I never had the impression that Surkov wanted Putin to experiment with his return. He felt the limits of the system," Pavlovsky said.

"He was the last person in the Kremlin who understood what the system could withstand and what it couldn't. And now there is no one left to feel that."
As the tandem arrangement took hold in practice, part of the elite began to gravitate over to the new president -- a trend that apparently gave Medvedev ideas and made Putin nervous. By the end of 2010, as Medvedev's term neared its mid-point, "there was a great deal of tension," Pavlovsky told "The Guardian."
By the spring of 2011, the tension was approaching critical mass, something that was visible in the surprisingly public sniping between the two leaders over Western intervention in Libya.
And as Pavlovsky notes in his interview with "New Times," it appeared to climax around the time of Medvedev's much-hyped press conference in May 2011, when it was widely expected that he would make an announcement about whether he would seek a second term -- but ultimately punted.
Pavlovsky said that unidentified members of the prime minister's team "frightened Putin with the myth that Medvedev was preparing to remove him. And [they frightened] Medvedev [with the rumor] that Putin would more or less move regiments to Moscow if that happened."

It is also notable that around this time, in April 2011, Pavlovsky lost his Kremlin job.
By the summer of 2011, according to Pavlovsky, both men were "in a psychologically unstable state" which lasted until they huddled in Sochi in August to hash things out.
Pavlovsky suggested to "New Times" that Putin was open to the idea of Medvedev staying (as long as he remained the person who was effectively in charge, of course). But he was convinced otherwise by his inner circle -- the so-called "collective Putin" -- who felt threatened by a second term for Medvedev:
I think that it was a few cohorts -- who owed their position and wealth to Putin -- who pushed him into it. They asked themselves a simple question: if it were not Putin, would their capital be guaranteed or not? That is why I, like a maniac, since I was close to the presidential staff then, said all the time that Medvedev must find a way to give guarantees to the "collective Putin." But Medvedev thought that the president was above these trivialities.
Pavlovsky's account sounds credible to me for several reasons. First, because he is in a position to know what went down. Second, he doesn't appear to having anything to gain from spilling this now. And finally, because it all fits with the partial signals we were all seeing throughout 2010 and 2011.
Careful readers of this blog will recall that I argued back then that I thought Plan A was for Medvedev to stay on as president and for Putin to remain in charge. I thought this partially because influential players like Pavlovsky and Surkov appeared to be indicating that this was the case.
But I also thought it because it appeared to be a logical and elegant way for Putin to have it both ways: to oversee, control, and direct the modernization of Russia's economy and political system as the national leader -- the chairman of the "Deep State" -- without the burdens of day-to-day governance.
As it turns out, Plan A was for Putin to stay while Pavlovsky, Surkov, and others -- correctly sensing that this would lead to social discontent -- tried to get him to consider the other option.
Putin, of course, didn't go for that. And everything that is happening in Russia now -- from the protests to the divided elite, to Putin's diminished majority -- are consequences of that decision.
-- 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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