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Stagnation And Reform

President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meet in Medvedev's residence outside Moscow in June.
President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meet in Medvedev's residence outside Moscow in June.
In a video blog last week, Dmitry Medvedev warned that the Russian politics was becoming "stagnant."

The use of that word -- "zastoi" in Russian -- was no accident. Anybody old enough to remember the early Perestroika period will recall how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his team of reformers derisively, and repeatedly, referred to the latter part of Leonid Brezhnev's rule as the "period of stagnation."

The reference, and its implication, could not be lost on any Russian with a political memory and a sense of history.

Medvedev's remedy to overcome the zastoi included a more competitive party system and giving the majority party in the State Duma responsibility for forming the government (you can watch the full video here and read the transcript here):

What we want to do? We want to make our political system more fair, more flexible, more dynamic and more open to renewal and development. It must enjoy voters' confidence. It's no secret that in certain periods of our political life, signs of stagnation appear. And such stagnation is equally damaging for the ruling party and opposition forces. If the opposition has no chance to win a fair fight - it degrades and becomes marginal. But if the ruling party has no chance of ever losing, it becomes bronzed and also degraded -- like any living organism that does not move.

Therefore, it became necessary to raise the level of political competition.

But our main task, the task of any democracy - to improve the quality of people's representation, to make it so the political majority was not static. Or rather, that it does not become a majority, consisting of extras and performers. The ruling party has both rights and responsibilities. It shouldn't just serve as an adjunct to the executive. It should play a full part in shaping this very executive

So far, so good, right? Medvedev wants more competitive elections and a government that is responsible to the parliamentary majority. Who could argue with that?

But in Russia, nothing is ever so simple or straightforward. A report by Elina Bilevskaya today in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" provides a bit of context.

Assuming that by more competitive elections will not mean United Russia losing its majority (probably a safe assumption), Bilevskaya argues that the changes Medvedev is proposing smoothly pave the way for the tandem to remain in power, with Medvedev as president -- but with Putin in charge:

If such changes are proposed before the start of the federal election year, we can assume that Medvedev's potential second term would have some limitations. Although the president would rule for six years, he would have to share power with the majority party. So that the political situation in the country, as before, will be under the total supervision of the leader of United Russia, Vladimir Putin, who, in fact, will not even need to head the government.

Putin continuing to rule the country as leader of United Russia is something the Power Vertical has long argued is a very possible post-2012 scenario. If the changes Medvedev is proposing become reality, such an outcome moves from very possible to very likely. If Putin wanted to return to the presidency, would he really allow its powers to be emasculated?

The more this drama develops, the more it becomes evident that Putin and Medvedev are on the same page. Rather than competing with each other, they are working in tandem and trying to pull off what Mikhail Gorbachev could not -- initiate needed reforms to overcome economic and social stagnation while not losing control of the political system in the process.

Medvedev plays the role of the reformist Gorbachev. But at the same time, Putin plays the role of his political hero, Yury Andropov, the tough KGB veteran who is really in charge and who makes sure everything doesn't spin out of control.

It's a far cry from democratization. But it is also less banal than being just a cheap stunt to keep Putin in charge.

Writing in "The Moscow Times," Vladimir Frolov, president of the LEFF Group, a government-relations and PR company, gets it just about right:

Putin’s plan seems to be to let Medvedev reach out to the liberal modernizing class with promises of gradual political opening that would awaken the generation of thirty-somethings from lethargy and reinvigorate the remodeled regime with their crowd-sourced mojo.

This would broaden the political base of the tandemocracy while incorporating many of its critics who now feel ignored or rejected. The internal social mobility within the Russian ruling class would increase, thereby reducing the risks of an elite mutiny. This is not unlike what the Communist Party of China is doing by stimulating controlled internal competition for top leadership.

It is a given that Medvedev needs Putin's support to remain president for another term. But what is less obvious -- although just as important -- is that Putin needs a front man like Medvedev to reform the system and continue ruling.

-- 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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