A case against Medvedev #2: the Armenian lesson

One of the most publicised reforms carried out during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency was Russia’s switch to year-round Daylight Saving Time (DST) for economic and health reasons. However, the reform did not quite work out and sparked a lively debate, yet, to this day, it has not been repealed. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin got back in the saddle, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy course changed, which, among many other effects in the post-Soviet world, prompted political changes in Armenia. The question is: how are all these related and what could turn out to be Medvedev’s swan song?

A tale from Armenia

By taking a closer look at Armenia, Russia-watchers can discover an interesting pattern. The Caucasian country that last year turned its back on the European Union and opted for joining the Eurasian Union practically without putting up a fight, has recently had a new Prime Minister. Tigran Sargsyan, in power since 2008, officially resigned over the government’s unpopular reform of the pension system, parts of which had been rejected by Armenia’s Constitutional Court. However, it is widely believed that the real reason behind Sargsyan’s resignation was the country’s U-turn on the European Union: the new, fully Russia-oriented course, which came to replace Armenia’s former seesawing – Russian orientation in security issues, but strong economic cooperation with the EU – required a new team. Indeed, some press reports suggested that the Prime Minister had, in fact, resigned a month earlier, well before the decision of the Constitutional Court on pensions, but was then asked to stay on.

The fact that it was the Speaker of the Armenian Parliament, Hovik Abrahamyan, who got to succeed Tigran Sargsyan in the Prime Minister’s seat, supports this explanation. Abrahamyan, a stalwart member of the country’s governing Republican Party is widely seen to be the political ally of Armenia’s former president, Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan, who resigned in 2008 after serving two consecutive terms, has since then moved to the background: the country’s second biggest political force, the Prosperous Armenia party, calling itself an “alternative”, rather than an opposition force, is widely seen as his political project, amalgamating Kocharyan’s political capital with the money of the country’s wealthiest businessman, Gagik Tsarukyan. The former president is clearly present, probably expecting his comeback moment: he spent the past years criticising the policies of Tigran Sargsyan, an economist with no previous political background or political base on his own.

Kocharyan is, in turn, widely seen as Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in Armenia. The two men, said to have the same uncompromising disposition, still enjoy friendly relations and have repeatedly met even after Kocharyan’s resignation as president. Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was widely expected to prompt Kocharyan to assume a more serious role in Armenia’s politics. Putin’s assertive foreign policy certainly augmented his chances and Abrahamyan’s appointment may just be the first step to indicate Kocharyan’s future winning course.

Consider it like this: in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, a market liberal, takes over the presidency in Russia. Armenia’s new president, Serzh Sargsyan (unrelated to the former Prime Minister), appoints an “expert” Prime Minister, Tigran Sargsyan. Then, in 2012, Vladimir Putin takes over from Medvedev, consolidates his domestic base, launches a foreign policy offensive, and Tigran Sargsyan is dismissed over a relatively unimportant matter, only to be replaced by someone seen to be an ally of Putin’s friend. I doubt that this is a mere coincidence. Does it, though, spell trouble for Dmitry Medvedev?

Obviously, the effects do not work both ways. Whatever happens in Russia is likely to influence politics in Armenia, but not the other way around. However, the way Tigran Sargsyan left the government does suspiciously look like something that may soon happen in Russia. Or something that has already started.

The time has come

The reform of Russia’s time zones was one of Medvedev’s least meaningful yet most visible reforms – which made it one of the very few to make it through the first two years of Vladimir Putin’s third term. Halting Russia’s clocks at daylight saving time and abolishing two of Russia’s time zones was maybe a necessary but ultimately an overhyped decision.  Far be it from me to underplay the importance of time zones. In the past three years numerous analytical papers have been published on the effects of Medvedev’s reforms on people’s health and the health of regional economies: winter in some regions became intolerably dark and inconsistency stemming from different time regimes in Europe, the US and Russia together with technical difficulties, made doing business even more cumbersome.  What is more, surveys have shown that Medvedev’s reform does not enjoy widespread acceptance among the population either: while in February 2011, 73% of Russians seemed to approve of the reform, less then one-third of them favoured a round-the-year DST in late 2013. Anyone undoing the reform could expect at least a mild popularity boost.

At first, Vladimir Putin seemed to back a law proposing to turn the clocks back to eternal winter time – that is, one hour backwards, eliminating DST forever – but, at the end of 2012, because of ill timing or just plain indecision, the bill was removed from the State Duma and the government was asked to deal with the matter itself. Later on, after the failure of another bill that would have reinstated the previous system of switching back and forth between DST and standard time, the original 2012 draft got reintroduced, this time enjoying widespread political support from around the State Duma’s political spectrum.

Two weeks ago, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported on an unusually fierce dispute between the government and the governing party. For the first time in its history, NezGaz reported, the ruling party publicly stated its disagreement with its own leader. This is something to be noticed, even if Medvedev has always been considered an outsider in the party. More precisely, senior figures in United Russia gave Medvedev an ultimatum, calling on him to take a decision on the DST issue in a month. Politicians of the ruling party spoke up against the indecision of the government with such a degree of openness that it was most probably pre-approved by the “keeper” of the ruling party’s parliamentary group, Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov.

No one said anything about the likely consequences of the issue’s not being resolved by the end of May. This, of course, would not be the first time in Russia that a deadline passes unnoticed and without consequences. However, it is clear that for the past two years Russia has been headed in a direction that leaves no room for Medvedev and his allies at the height of power. This is hardly news, but, of course, cannot be the official explanation of his dismissal, when it ultimately happens. Instead, previously, many observers had suspected the Prime Minister to be dismissed in connection with the Sochi Olympics. That, however, turned out to be just too important to be called a failure, not to mention its being too closely tied to other people and personally Putin. A perfect pretext is a relatively unimportant, yet highly visible issue that can be attributed to one specific person and his entourage. And in Medvedev’s case, there is not many of those left.

In 2012, when the State Duma did not repeal Medvedev’s reform, some took it as Vladimir Putin’s gesture towards Medvedev: a sign that the President did not want to completely humiliate his protégé that had dutifully ceased his place to him. However, Medvedev’s reforms, one by one, have been revoked in the past two years, some even “justified” by the Prime Minister himself. Medvedev got humiliated in every possible way you can humiliate a politician. So what if the issue was only spared, only to be pulled out of someone’s sleeve at a better time? What if this is Medvedev’s Tigran Sargsyan moment?

Make no mistake: if it is not the DST, there will be something similar. Something relatively unimportant yet tangible, unpopular and tied personally to Medvedev. The Prime Minister is clearly less and less a man of the future, and his dismissal is likely to happen as described above: swiftly, smoothly, without major consequences but with a show for the masses.

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