A case for Medvedev

Dmitry Medvedev outlined an economic program stretching all the way to 2018, the date of the next presidential election. More importantly, he did it in the Kremlin, unlike any of his predecessors, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate he was still supported by Vladimir Putin. At the same time, a video, aimed at discrediting the Prime Minister for allowing international military action against Libya hit the news. More importantly, the video was published on a website linked to deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin, in an apparent attempt to showcase his ambitions. So how precarious exactly is Medvedev’s position? Who are the ones that stand in line? What does this mean for Vladimir Putin who is trying to seal a new contract with the elite?

A new majority for Putin

A very important question stemming from the present political situation concerns the population’s reaction to the crumbling of what Brian Whitmore and Mark Galeotti called the ‘fake state’. That is, the unveiling the power machine – the ‘deep state’ – hidden behind the façade of de jure political institutions and rubbing it in the face of voters. Indeed in the last Power Vertical podcast Brian Whitmore took on an article by Kirill Rogov in Novaya Gazeta, which claimed that Putin has abandoned the original ‘contract’ he had sealed with Russia’s population about steady prosperity in exchange for authoritarian politics. Or rather, the contract abandoned Putin as circumstances changed. Rogov claimed that what Putin was trying to do was building a ‘new majority’ among those that would still be sympathetic to the nature of his rule and the content of a socially more conservative programme. I have mentioned a very similar argument on this blog numerous times: Putin has apparently abandoned the more affluent, liberal and urban ‘Russia A’ and decided to concentrate on the poorer, more inwards-looking and rural ‘Russia B’, the segment of the population to which the demise of Putin would mean more than the desired change in the regime. This, however, falls short of a new ‘social contract’ as it is open only to a certain group of Russian citizens, even if they constitute a (slight) majority at the moment. While, as I argue below, there seems to be a new contract between Putin and his core constituency, the Russian elite, this new approach towards the population is rather more ‘political’ and aims at creating a majority on ideological, rather than pragmatic grounds.

In the said podcast, Brian Whitmore was on the opinion that this new narrative was not working, despite the high number of excessively, sometimes grotesquely conservative laws discussed and adopted in the State Duma. Kirill Kobrin pointed out, among others, the inconsistency of the legislative agenda. They pointed out how the mask had fallen from the ‘deep state’ and seemed to imply that the fact Russians no longer trusted institutions would eventually lead to changes. I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment. First of all, as I argue below about the series of these laws: ‘though it be madness, yet there is method in it’ from a purely political point of view. But I will come back to that in a short while. Let us only look at the population at the moment. Even if I agree that a considerable part of Russian citizens have lost trust in institutions they used to respect, there is at least three further obstacles that prevent momentous changes from happening and that might as well help survive the ‘fake state’ even in its present form.

First, as I mentioned above (and on many occasions in the past), Russians are deeply divided on what ‘desirable changes’ mean: to some, it means a new president, to some only a less corrupt governor; to some it means market freedom and to others it means gay marriage. These divisions are already deeper than they are in most western societies. Furthermore, recently, they have been showcased and exaggerated by the State Duma’s grotesque legislation, forcing a divided opposition to debate gay rights or relations with America.

Second, every momentous change has its limits. However annoyed Russians got by the ‘castling’ of Putin and Medvedev and the subsequent unveiling of the deep state, however disappointed they turned out to be with Medvedev’s government, these nevertheless cannot lead to an endless, steady decrease in the popular support for the government. They have reached their limit. What is needed for the system’s basis to further decrease is not the government staying on the present (wrong) track, but another momentous scandal, another change of another kind.

Third, opposite to historical situations that many often compare the present one to (the Yeltsin era or the last years of Gorbachev’s rule), there is no alternative force known and respected well enough to present a suitable alternative to Russians. There is no agile and impertinent Boris Yeltsin in Sverdlovsk and there is no dynamic and ironhanded Vladimir Putin standing next to a bombed apartment building. And no, there seems to be no new Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, either. If the credibility of the system is waning together with the popular trust in its institutions, outside it there is nothing but vacuum.

A new contract with the elite

I agree with Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin on one point: the legislative agenda does seem to be a shambles, due partly to the fact that the majority of these laws are drafted not by the government or the president but by United Russia deputies. However, I think that in a way, this longer legislative leash is part of the new contract with the elite. It is an important part of it, just as much as the longer leash of the Investigative Committee in handling the opposition, the increasing influence of the state in the weakening energy industry or the increased mandatory age of retirement for state officials are. There is clearly a lack of extra wealth to distribute. There is clearly a fear that distributing effective power would give ground to pretenders, just as a powerful Politburo gave ground to Gorbachev. Thus, the above create at least the illusion of extra wealth and power, or open up the way for the elite to enjoy the existing wealth and power for a bit longer. Alas, according to the sources of Novaya Gazeta, even the most contentious law, the one banning state officials from having bank accounts abroad seems to be undergoing major changes, possibly reflecting a gradual backtracking, if not surrender, from the government’s part. There is indeed a new contract in preparation between Vladimir Putin and the ruing elite.

At the moment, one of the biggest questions concerning this new contract is whether it will include a clause about a new Prime Minister.

The reason why this question is particularly puzzling is the wide variety of roles that a new Prime Minister would have to play at the same time. An exchange on Twitter with astute Russia-watchers like Mark Galeotti and Eugene Ivanov shed light to the many qualities and assets the President of Russia will expect from his Prime Minister under the present circumstances: political muscles strong enough to take firm policy initiatives but restrained enough not to fuel his political ambitions; willingness to accept the role of the scapegoat if things go downhill but a popularity high enough to raise the profile of the government; being attached to power clans just enough to preserve the delicate balance within the government, but not being part or having a powerful clan on his own. This sounds like mission impossible, doesn’t it?

For some of the possible candidates, it is. The five people that have most widely been discussed as candidates are Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defence, Dmitry Rogozin, Vice-Premier in charge for defence procurements, Alexei Kudrin, former minister of finance and Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow. Each one of them have their merits, considering the list of desired qualities above. But they each have serious flaws, too. Ivanov certainly has political muscles and is trusted by Putin, but he is far from being popular or even well known and is a central figure among the conservative siloviki, so his appointment would seriously tilt the power balance in the government. Shoigu is outstandingly popular by Russian standards and has his own political leverage, but he is one of the few people who have made careers before Putin’s election, therefore, probably Putin would rather keep him close but not too close. Rogozin, for a long time one of the most extravagant and provocative pro-government politicians would very well suit the present grotesque ideological turn, and he is not closely connected to power clans either; however, as recent examples show, he is very ambitious: even if he was not personally behind the kompromat video on Medvedev, he quite possibly had to do with the demise of his political rival, Anatoly Serdyukov. Kudrin has the unique weapon of being both a close confident of Putin and a vocal critic of the government’s policies. He sure has political muscles and has proven that he can handle policy decisions. However, it is rather questionable whether he would accept to be a scapegoat and given the present political direction and power balance of the government, his appointment would be anachronistic.

Sobyanin would probably be the most convenient choice: arguably, he has the widest support in Putin’s inner circle; he is not connected strongly to any of the ideologically opposed power groups, and citizens know him well enough. On the other hand, his appointment would open up two battlefields: first, the business circle connected to Novatek-chief Gennady Timchenko would get a very powerful political trump card which it might use against Timchenko’s business rival, Igor Sechin and Rosneft. Second, it would leave Russia’s leaders with a very uneasy question about Moscow’s future. Appointing someone in Sobyanin’s place would not be an easy task to begin with, given the ludicrous assets of the capital city. However, even the process of appointment itself may run into difficulties: in order to avoid early mayoral elections in a city hostile to the governing party, the Moscow City Duma would have to abolish direct mayoral elections. If anywhere in the country a decision like this is able to cause a large public uproar, it’s in Moscow. And, as I argued above, what the government does not need at the moment is exactly a new instance of negative change, a blow that could push its support further downhill.

But who is it, then? Hang on a minute; don’t we already have someone to do the job?

He might have serious shortcomings and flaws himself, but Dmitry Medvedev is a stronger element in the present political system than many might think. In fact, the reason why Medvedev’s current position seems so precarious is that he used to be the President of Russia, a position, which is in stark contrast with the role he is playing now. He is nevertheless still one of the most important cogwheels of a narrative that has been dominating Russia for the past five years: the tandem. Therefore, Medvedev is an important part of the ‘fake state’. Demoting Medvedev would mean removing a very important building block. While opening up a political competition for elite groups, a step like this might not necessarily mitigate tensions between them. On the other hand, however unpopular Medvedev’s government is, his dismissal would fully destroy the illusion of a minimal, yet existing distribution of power in the eyes of voters (possibly even to the extent of creating that certain new negative blow). The “castling” in September 2011 was already controversial enough to considerably erode the credibility of Putin and the political system. Losing Medvedev, at least at this point, would deal a serious blow to Putin.

The other issue, closely intertwined with the search for a possible new Prime Minister is the search for Putin’s possible successor. For months it seemed as if these two questions had only had slight, no more than incidental relation to one another. However, the vivid interest in the position of the Prime Minister shows that there are many who would willingly accept the position in spite of its unfavourable accessories. This means that many see being Prime Minister as a prelude to being appointed heir, or at least as a position where they could build up a strong national political base. Indeed, one of the unwanted side effects of Medvedev’s presidential term with Putin as Prime Minister, and the subsequent castling was that now the office of the Prime Minister has a much greater significance than it used to have. It is actually quite possible that anyone that is powerful enough to successfully handle the conflicting groups in the government and fill Medvedev’s shoes as the other part of the tandem would also be able to build a double-sided power base on its own: first, among voters, through the increased political leverage of the office itself, and second, among the elite, through being in a pivotal, deciding position similar to that of Putin’s, even if on a smaller scale. The majority of the present pretenders would be able and willing to do just this. Except, of course, for Medvedev himself. He has already proven his infinite loyalty to Putin by having stepped aside at the time he had the opportunity to challenge him. Even more importantly, he is probably the least possible politician to announce credibly policy changes and build a strong and popular political platform based on them.

Another fact worth noting is that as a side effect of Medvedev’s presidential term, many of his associates have eaten their way deep into the system. Even though in the past year some of them were demoted or weakened, many of them are still occupying important positions. To name a few, justice minister Alexander Konovalov, or Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who, in spite of his office’s gradual loss of significance in the past years, might as well have some kompromats in the drawers of the prosecution. This should not be overlooked either, even if the ‘kompromat bubble’ I wrote about two months ago does not seem to be about to burst just yet.

For all the above, to me at least, keeping Medvedev seems the logical choice at the moment. However, circumstances might profoundly change as they did in 2011, my analysis might be proven wrong as it was in 2011, and God forbid, even the Russian president might take an illogical decision. Let’s be honest: it would not be the first time, either.

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