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The Boys Who Cried Wolf

Putin and Medvedev at a December 29 Cabinet meeting.
Putin and Medvedev at a December 29 Cabinet meeting.
Is the tandem two-step beginning to wear thin?

President Dmitry Medvedev's most recent rhetorical feints and nods to the reform-hungry side of the elite have produced as much skepticism as hope among the urbane intelligentsia. Everybody, it seems, has seen this movie too many times over the past two-and-a-half years and the results have thus far been disappointing.

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, who is a pretty decent barometer of the liberal side of Russia's chattering class, sums up the mood well in a recent piece in "Novaya gazeta":

Is it that Medvedev nevertheless wants to move out from Putin's shadow and, on the threshold of the elections, reinforce his personal image as a civil lawyer and pragmatist, and a politician, who (unlike some) relies on the law rather than tyranny?

Or have they agreed that each of them should have their own electoral field, and they will continue to play the good cop-bad cop?

Or perhaps it is just their swan song?

As before, who knows, with their lofty politics. In itself, the genre of careful allusions and meaningful silences is gradually starting to pall. Yes, this time the president said more than usual. And, in general, was moving in the right direction. And he had full sympathetic understanding of the limited nature of his political resources from the audience, which has seen many things.

The trouble is that these signals no longer excite many people. What is, actually, the difference, if time has stood still in the country and nothing is happening on the smooth and paradisiacal surface? All the processes are hidden in the depths, where strange bacteria produce either RDX, or alcohol, or commonplace hydrogen sulfide. Sometimes bubbles float to the surface. And then they burst. Some people think they smell like mignonette, some that they smell like blood and saltpeter. Some of something else again.

Some think they smack of Tunisia. And they remind others of a cocktail of Brezhnev and Andropov.

The countdown to the 2012 transition -- or non-transition -- is well underway and people both inside and outside the halls of power are getting anxious and craving certainty. Just as the liberal intelligentsia is skeptical and wary of being disappointed by Medvedev, the bureaucracy is becoming increasingly restive and weary of the ambiguity over who will be in charge.

Writing "Vedomosti," Dmitry Badovsky, assistant director of the Institute of Social Systems, argues that the ambiguity is bound to last throughout much of the coming year:

The ruling elites live in the conditions of dual loyalty and political uncertainty with regard to 2012 -- in other words, their own future. This state of affairs cannot help but effect the efficiency and consistency of the machinery of state. Sparks are flying with increased frequency in the relationships between the presidential administration, the government, the State Duma, the ministries, and among all sorts of interest groups.

The ruling class needs more in terms of clarity and certainty but the tandem sees it all from a wholly different angle. Regardless of whether or not both national leaders know the answer to the question on everybody's mind, or whether only one of them knows it, both need the suspense maintained as long as possible.

This suspense is the tool that enables Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin to keep the situation in hand and retain the political initiative. This is why the suspense will be maintained to the last possible moment, and this is why the elite still has ten months or so in the dark -- which will do nothing to promote efficiency of the state. Without this efficiency all modernization plans will go down the drain sooner or later.

How destabilizing this all could be is hard to say. The upcoming political season -- Duma elections in December and the presidential vote in March 2012 -- is unfolding in an atmosphere of economic anxiety (despite rising oil prices) and under the shadow of potential contagion effects from Tunisia and Egypt.

The contrast with the confident political elite that entered the 2007-8 election season could not be sharper. Then, Putin kept the suspense going until December 10, 2007 -- less than three months before the March 2, 2008 presidential election -- when he anointed Medvedev as his chosen successor.

As I have blogged here, I think Plan A is for the tandem to remain intact after 2012, with Medvedev remaining as president and Putin remaining in charge as a national leader, backed by the security services, who controls the deep state.

I agree with Badovsky that keeping the suspense going serves both ends of the tandem at this point, regardless of what the plan is. But in today's restive environment, another year of such uncertainty may be more than the system can bear.

-- 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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