In politics there are two things which can clearly indicate that an issue is very important. It’s either that the elite talks way too much about it or that it keeps completely silent. The control over Russia’s geopolitical orientation was something that hadn’t been questioned for years and now it seems to face a long and fierce discussion. Some suggest that this stint between Medvedev and Putin is something that hadn’t been seen earlier and that it is the first “real” dispute within the tandem. Some even see the end of the “dynamic duo”. I don’t think that the week that passed since the conflicting statements has lived up to the expectations of those who wanted to see an open rivalry. On the other hand, given the oddity of a public confrontation like this in an election year, I am sure something is going on and it is more than the usual pokazukha. Still, in Russia, these things can only be planned. But who planned this one, and what is the point?
I believe the only thing we can surely claim after last week’s statements on Libya is that there is a very serious debate going on within the elite about the foreign policy, but not necessarily between Medvedev and Putin, although they might still have conflicting views. They actually have on a lot of other things as well. Vedomosti was kind enough to compile a very interesting (but, I think far from concise) video about these. This week it even confirmed the fact that some kind of an internal catfight is going on between the respective teams of the two leaders, that organise overlapping meetings. No news there. On the other hand, if this conflict were only about the tandem splitting up audiences among themselves, as they usually do, they would have done this in another way, Medvedev directing his words to a smaller audience or to the West. But this time both statements were directed to the nation, on TV.
Today RIA Novosti published a quite interesting piece written by Alexander Rahr from the German Policy Council of International relations. He argues that what happened was a test drive for introducing different opinions on the highest level of the government, which would give way to a more pluralistic political system. I had blogged about the possibility earlier, and was happy to see that Medvedev’s pocket think tank, the Centre for Strategic Research also called for a new political force to emerge, which might, in my opinion, pave the way to a two-pillar party system.
Again: to do this safely, the tandem cannot let things slip out of its hands. If there is really a serious debate about foreign policy, the flagships of the two camp need to be Medvedev and Putin. One should look at how promptly the Russian ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov was told off after he criticised the President.
I think it is a serious debate indeed. Russia has been struggling to find its new national identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Self-identification is a difficult challenge for every nation that had a ruptured history, but in Russia, it has a vital significance. Everything that is in connection with this – however slightly – will induce a passionate and serious debate. Remember last year’s Moscow riots and the ensuing dispute about what modern Russian nationalism should be. Similarly, the debate about Libya might be about stability and energy prices for the elite (or part of it), but for the people (and presumably a part of the elite) it is about aligning with the West or pretending to be a world power.
Russia’s elite may have realised that things in the economy, for the moment, work the best when liberals are in charge for business and finances. They may also have realised that, for the moment, the stability of the country is best ensured if the human rights and key commodities are governed in a siloviki way. But there’s no such “agreement” about foreign policy and Russian self-identification. This is an open battlefield not only for the elite but for the whole of the Russian nation as well that seems to be very divided on this matter. Together with issues concerning life standards (which have an undeniable local aspect everywhere), this might be the ground where the foundations of a new (fake-) pluralistic system are laid down outside the intellectual circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
If things don’t get out of hands, that is. Given the tensions under the surface, it won’t be an easy ride.