Changes in Russian politics seem to have gained momentum in March. Things follow each other in a remarkable pace, public dispute about Libya followed by the massive sacking of government officials from the boards of state-owned companies and Dmitry Medvedev’s most straightforward ever indication about his running for presidency in 2012. Even well-informed Russian political commentators are scratching their heads clueless, while the only consensus seems to be on the fact that something is really happening (which, by the way, should come as no surprise, given that 2011 is an election year). Obviously, I won’t try to do justice from Brussels, but I will add what I think about the whole story, and what I think may be in stock for us. So is this one a real conflict, and what seem to be the strategies of the conflicting (or the cooperating) parties?
In the light of the recent events, it would be tempting to throw out my previous theory about Medvedev and Putin supposedly having an agreement according to which the former stays on as President but the latter having the upper hand in Russian politics. Similarly to some Russia-watchers, I could say: there you go, this one’s a real conflict already, so if Putin is still stronger than Medvedev, he will undoubtedly come back as President to reset things. After all, if your theory is being constantly falsified by actual events, it becomes more and more embarrassing to stick to it. And a real conflict, if we think back on what was said about Medvedev’s perspectives in 2007, wouldn’t be so surprising either.
What would be puzzling in the above case, though, is the nonchalant nature of how Putin has been reacting to the turmoil of the recent weeks. It’s worth noting that there has been no considerable “counterattack” in any of the cases. About Libya, Putin said the first remark and Medvedev reacted. In the case of Medvedev saying that he would decide whether he would run for President next year, there was a firm but not very stark reaction from Putin reminding the public that the tandem was still acting together and decisions will have to be taken later (the infamous statement from Yuri Shuvalov, I think, was rather an expression of allegiance, as the word “candidate” was carefully not mentioned). Most importantly though, Putin did not do practically anything to counter the sacking of his right-hand man Igor Sechin from Rosneft. Even if actual changes are far from being a breakthrough either (see Sergey Shishin, an ally of Sechin taking over Rosneft), it still looks like that Medvedev increasingly takes over the lead.
If we look at the Russia we knew in 2007 and the one we know now, do we notice any difference? We sure do. As Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the best-known Russian political commentators said to the reporter of Delovoi Peterburg:
“Stability never lasted more than 10 years. There was the stability of the last decade, and there was Brezhnev’s stability. In both cases, stability brought about a strong middle class. And then, this very same middle class started to complain about the stagnation and tyranny of those protecting this stability. The protectors of stability in our country each time went beyond their power. The protectors engaged in administrative rent-seeking, they were often corrupt and tried to control everything and everyone. They interfered with other people’s interests and affairs. The question today is not about renouncing stability but about the protection of rights and interests. (…) A presidential candidate in 2012 must give guarantees to each and every citizen.”
In 2000, guarantees were given to Russia and the Russian nation about the stability and security of the country when it came to external or quasi-external security threats like the NATO-enlargement or separatism. Vladimir Putin was the man for the job. Now Russian society needs to be saved from internal security threats, like corruption, police brutality or local oligarchs. And it seems that this time Dmitry Medvedev is the man for the job. Obviously, this can only be done very carefully. As I have blogged a couple of times before, there will be a series of baby steps towards a more democratic system. But the transition, however careful it is, needs to make a considerable noise on the outside. Russian electorate needs to have a catharsis at least similar to the one in 2000.
What makes this venture quite risky is that there still are some problems in Russia reminiscent of the ones ten years ago. A huge crisis is cooking in the Caucasus which has already spilled over the borders of the region and caused terror in Moscow. The debate about Russian national identity is at its height again. And, perhaps most importantly, there are still a considerable mass of people in Russia who would like these new problems to be solved with old tools. Those, who would like to have “guarantees in a person” (as Pavlovsky puts it, although not necessarily Putin, as I think), and not in an institutional mechanism or the rule of law which so far has been alien to most of Russia. This split in the society, as I’ve written before, could give birth to a Russian-style coalition governance. It would solve some problems, but as no one knows exactly how many people follow the first and how many the second way of thinking, it would be a risky and shaky business.
Maybe things would be less complicated if elections were still years ahead. Maybe on the contrary, they would become more complicated. I don’t think anyone in the Russian elite knows. But elections will take place now, and Russia clearly needs a change. And different problems often require different solutions. In a democracy, at least.