Talk of a Medvedev-Putin rift is no longer only talk, as the economic crisis already pulls the two further apart regardless of their intentions, but any rumor of the conflict producing an open split is highly premature.
In recent weeks, President Dmitry Medvedev has been taking a higher public profile in Russian politics, and analysts have been detecting divergences from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over not only style but also political substance. Yet the two men have known one another for 20 years, working together in St Petersburg before either went to Moscow. So is it possible that Medvedev and Putin have decided to play good cop-bad cop?
Perhaps circumstances have created that appearance, but Russian history has never favored the existence of two centers of political power, whether these be the Regency of Sophia against the adolescent Peter I ("The Great") in the 1680s, the "dual power" of the soviets (originally, spontaneously arising workers' councils) and the Tsar's state apparatus during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the disintegration of the Khrushchev-Bulganin duumvirate in the mid-1950s in favor of the former (or that of the Brezhnev-Kosygin duumvirate in the late 1960s), or the conflict between Yeltsin and the Duma in the early 1990s.
So what is the real evidence? At the end of January, while Putin was out of the country for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Medvedev met with the editor of Novaya gazeta, the newspaper for which four murdered journalists have worked, the last only 10 days earlier and the most notable being Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the driving force behind glasnost and perestroika, was also present on Medvedev's invitation.
The list of small gestures Medvedev has made in the last several weeks makes a stronger impression when they are cumulated. He has scaled back a bill to expand the definition of treason, revived a dormant advisory human rights council and appointed a new head for it, called for improvements in the country's overcrowded prisons, encouraged the use of bail and electronic bracelets in lieu of pre-trial detention, criticized the rate of development of Russia's "information society," moved to lower the percentage threshold for representation in the Duma and encouraged giving smaller factions greater powers within it, begun a series of probably monthly televised addresses that have been compared to US President Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats," and much more.
But some of the moves are ambiguous. Thus, for example, there is no single correct interpretation of Medvedev's mid-February ouster of four regional governors from their offices; rather, there are multiple plausible interpretations, each of which is probably at least partly correct and also dependent upon unforeseeable future events for establishing its greater accuracy. The main result is that the power of the federal bureaucracy will be increased, but the regional governors ousted were Putin's appointees and one of the replacements is an opposition politician. Yet none of the new appointees has experience in the region to which he has been appointed, so it is unclear that the personnel shifts will really improve the economic situation of the people there. Meanwhile, a bill was approved giving regional legislatures the right to remove mayors, strengthening what in Russian politics is called the "power vertical" from the center downward.
Elites and Masses
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who heads the Elite Studies Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes a rebellion by Medvedev against Putin to be impossible, and that his recent apparent moderate divergence is merely an aggregate of populist gestures. Surely this is largely true. Yet as the former Russian parliamentary deputy Viktor Sheynis correctly notes, reforms at the top in Russia have always preceded positive political changes, which in turn depend upon a proper assessment of those reforms by society and upon its becoming involving "as an independent historical actor in the process of the changes that it could not have itself brought about."
Last November, the newspaper Vedomosti published an article warning that the worsening economic situation made riots possible on the scale of the tragic Novocherkassk uprising that lasted three days in June 1962. Some journalists have even called for civil disobedience to promote a "thaw from below." (The reference is to "Khrushchev's Thaw" or de-Stalinization, taken from the title of Ilya Ehrenburg's 1954 novel.)
Perhaps a first instance of open policy conflict between the two factions within the Interior Ministry has emerged over whether to suppress or to permit popular demonstrations against economic hardship. A legal protest in Moscow was permitted while pro-government counter-demonstrators were removed from the scene. In mid-February, public protests were held in Vladivostok.
What is important here is that the unexpected economic and financial crisis in Russia is beginning to institutionalize a divergence of interests between Medvedev's and Putin's respective staffs and acolytes, and that the emerging conflict between these factions takes place both over the implementation of anti-crisis measures ordered by the president and over the control and procedures of the security and police structures. This development suggests increasing subterranean political conflict, as the scope for routine political opposition has been reduced to extremely narrow dimensions while popular hardship will not soon decrease.
Sub-Elites and Counter-Elites
Writing in Novaya gazeta in 2003, Pavel Voshchanov referred to the United Russia parliamentary bloc as a "collective [Putin] in the Duma" complementing "the one in the Kremlin." Since then, and especially since Medvedev became president a year ago, many observers and analysts have taken to speaking of a "collective Putin" by analogy to the standard (Soviet) phrase "collective leadership." Thus, to take but one example, in October 2007 the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) analyst Brian Whitmore called Putin "the front man and public face for an elite group of seasoned bureaucrats, most of whom are veterans of the KGB" from St Petersburg, a "tight-knit inner sanctum" who together "run Russia and control the crown jewels of the country's economy," taking "all key political decisions in Russia." Indeed, Medvedev has regularly been included as one of these, as he has known and worked with Putin since 1990, before either of them went to Moscow. The present awkward situation arises from the fact that Medvedev was chosen and put into the office president by Putin, who now serves as his prime minister.
Recent developments suggest that the disagreement may be growing and invading the important financial sphere. The well-connected Moscow-based business journalist John Helmer has written of a tug-of-war between factions over a possible government expropriation or bailout for Oleg Deripaska, majority owner of the world's second largest aluminum producer Rusal. He identifies one faction led by Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (whom many see responsible for the destruction of Yukos and jailing of its former head Mikhail Khodorkovsky), who would have the state take over Deripaska's shares and reorganize the company without him, versus another led by Medvedev and deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, who would not believe such a move to be economically rational and would prefer another solution. At the same time, different banks appear to be allying more closely with different factions, and the banking system may become a sphere of conflict.
The Present and Its Prospects
Last August, however, the RFE/RL analyst Whitmore quoted the head of Heritage Foundation's Moscow office Evgenii Volk as affirming a "division" between the secret-service veterans around Sechin and the technocrats around Medvedev over "how relations should be with business and how to conduct foreign policy." Said Volk, "The question now is whether [this disagreement] can be managed or whether it will grow."
There is not yet such a schism between Medvedev and Putin, but unexpected future circumstances could deepen the present differences into such a split. This would happen if a particularly sharp clash over an economic issue or a disagreement over personnel appointments led to a conflict between the broader circles now forming around each of the two leaders. And, indeed, there are clear signs of occasional disagreement over personnel assignments between Medvedev and Putin. What is probably the case, however, complicating any analysis, is not just that the bureaucracies are not monolithic, but moreover that divisions run not only through the institutions but also "through" the individuals concerned.
Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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First published by Security Watch, International Relations and Security Network (Zurich), 11 March 2009.