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Analysis & Opinion
05.08.11 Will Medvedev Declare His Candidacy Without Putin’s Consent?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Vlad Ivanenko, Andrei Liakhov, Ira Strauss

In a sign of sheer desperation in Dmitry Medvedev’s camp, two of his informal advisors have called upon him to openly challenge Vladimir Putin and declare his candidacy at the Yaroslavl Political Forum early next month (with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in attendance to provide Western endorsement). Will Medvedev run for president without Putin’s consent? Will he take advice to declare his candidacy in early September, preempting Putin and presenting him with a fait-accompli? What is likely to be Putin’s reaction to such a harsh scenario – one that he has not prepared for? Will Medvedev fire Putin, if he objects to his presidential bid?

In a commentary in Vedomosti last week, Igor Yurgens of the Institute of Contemporary Development and Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev to openly declare his intention to run for a second term.

The two Medvedev allies argued that Russia would face a deep economic crisis and social tensions if Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin, or a third candidate was elected with Putin’s backing. In fact, they went as far as to say that only Medvedev’s reelection to a second term would save Russia from otherwise imminent ruin.

In what appears to be a calculated retaliation by Putin’s camp, hours after the Yurgens and Gontmakher commentary appeared, Reuters ran a story, citing anonymous high-level sources, claiming that Putin had already decided to run for president in 2012.

Reuters quoted one of the officials as saying that Putin was "troubled by the perception that his protege, whom he has known for more than two decades, did not have sufficient support among the political and business elite or the electorate to ensure stability if he pushed ahead with plans for political reform." Another official alleged that "an attempt by Medvedev to assert his authority in recent months had unsettled Putin, but the two leaders communicated well on a regular basis."

The strategy of Medvedev’s circle now seems to be to preempt Putin’s “private chat with Medvedev to sort out between themselves who is going to run” and force him to either endorse Medvedev as his own choice for president, or to repudiate his protege with public arguments as to why Medvedev does not deserve to serve a second term.

The bet is that Putin would not challenge Medvedev openly, risking an all out war of the elites. Were it to prove wrong, Medvedev may well be urged to exercise his constitutional right to fire the prime minister before he loses this power six months before the presidential vote.

Medvedev’s liberal advisers have sought to frame his second term and his program for modernization as repudiation of Putin’s system of managed political pluralism. This raised the specter of a Mikhail Gorbachev-style unraveling of the country, with Medvedev’s Kremlin losing control as it pushed for faster political liberalization during his second term, despite insufficient public support. Medvedev’s faux pas was not to distance himself from some of the outlandish ramblings of those who claimed to be his advisors.

Medvedev’s team has cast him as a Boris Yeltsin-style destroyer of Putin’s system, and is now urging him to openly challenge Putin the way Yeltsin challenged Gorbachev in 1990. Another parallel might be former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, who also challenged the established system and capitalized on popular support.

Medvedev’s allies are betting on rallying the support of Russia’s business and some regional leaders to convince Putin not to run in the presidential election next year.

Will Medvedev run for president without Putin’s consent? Will he take advice to declare his candidacy in early September, preempting Putin and presenting him with a fait-accompli? What is likely to be Putin’s reaction to such a harsh scenario – one that he has not prepared for? Would he let Medvedev’s decision stand? Would Medvedev fire Putin, were he to object to his presidential bid? Are Medvedev’s allies right in casting him as a modern version of Boris Yeltsin, capable of challenging the system and intent on reforming it to the point of destruction? What kind of public and elite support in Russia could Medvedev count on were he to opt for an independent run? What would be the reaction in the West if Russia’s ruling tandem was to split, with Medvedev running as a challenger to Putin?

Andrei Liakhov, Partner, Integrites International Law Firm, London

Any presidential campaign is very expensive. It is a universal rule of modern politics that the better-funded candidate always wins. This is equally true of the United States, Russia, France, Lithuania and Austria. (I randomly selected countries with different political systems and a different structure of the electorate.) This rule becomes even more important when there are no major political differences between the candidates’ platforms. However, even the best-funded candidate needs a well-organized and well-oiled election machine to persuade the electorate that he is the best of the available choices. These are the basic starting points of any election campaign.

Where one of the candidates is an incumbent head of state, the track record of his last office is important, but not crucial (George Bush Senior is not a suitable example, as Bill Clinton’s campaign was much better funded and organized, and I cannot find a recent example of a better funded incumbent president losing his second election campaign). Although the establishment’s support usually plays a very modest role in a developed society, any CIS elections are often heavily influenced (if not determined) by the establishment throwing its collective support behind a chosen candidate.

Medvedev has to consider all of these factors before deciding whether to run as an independent.

The first one is funding. Before joining the civil service, Medvedev owned quite a large chunk of a very large and very successful forestry business (Ilim Pulp), which he allegedly sold for (on various estimates) anything between $350 million and $500 million. Which is enough of course to secure his grandchildren’s future (if and when he has any), but hardly sufficient to win the 2012 presidential race. Rumors (and nothing is ever confirmed or denied or established beyond any reasonable doubt) have it that since becoming a civil servant and following his accession to the very top of Russia’s bureaucratic food chain, Medvedev has acquired interests in the Russian gold industry. Irrespective of whether it is true or not even the most average of investment managers could have easily doubled his wealth right up to 2008. However, presidential races are very rarely funded from a candidate’s own pockets, and even his own pocket may not be sufficiently deep. In his years of presidency he has failed to build (unlike Putin) relationships which could generate the required $1.5 billion to secure the election.

The same is true of the organization required to win – none of the political parties associate themselves with Medvedev, and his recent chaotic firing of civil servants certainly did not encourage the “nomenklatura” to get behind him. I strongly doubt that the Right Cause under Mikhail Prokhorov has the organization and discipline required to run an effective election campaign. Needless to say that it does not have appeal to the bulk of the Russian electorate and it is strongly doubtful that Medvedev and Prokhorov could turn it around before the polling date.

Both the “nomenklatura” and big business dislike Medvedev for a variety of reasons. His performance record was checkered even before the 2008 election (the National Projects were a spectacular failure, so is Rosnano, and the reform of the armed forces is not producing any meaningful results. “High Tech Russia” remains largely a figment of Medvedev’s and Dvorkovich’s imaginations, and his U-turns on Libya and Iran badly misfired). Thus there are no good reasons either for the support of the establishment or for high popularity ratings.

On top of everything else, Medvedev is still seen as in Putin’s shadow and for the first two years of his presidency, there were no signs he was trying to get out. His image did not progress beyond that of a “Zitz Chairman” (to use Ostap Bender terminology). He has failed to develop a compelling image of a strong, determined, independent leader with his own agenda.

Dmitry Medvedev was propelled to the very top ill-prepared and well before his political maturity. Unfortunately he failed to learn on the job. He is intelligent enough to understand all of this. The biggest intrigue currently is whether his vanity will prevail over reason. This question, I think, is beyond the comprehension of any, even the most learned and experienced Kremlinologists.

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D. in economics, Ottawa

Two thousand seven was supposed to be an exciting year for Russia. It was the first time in its history when its leader, despite enjoying wide public support, prepared to step down voluntarily. “Are we witnessing the nascence of a Russian George Washington?” was the question that I asked myself.

All signs indicated that then-president Putin envisaged competitive parliamentary and presidential elections. He endorsed the creation of a second party of power – Just Russia – that was preparing to play the role of “Her Majesty's loyal opposition” in the new Duma elected in December of 2007.

He watched approvingly as two of his closest lieutenants – Dmitry Medvedev and Sergey Ivanov – asserted their credentials as independent presidential candidates in front of domestic audiences and abroad.

And he contemplated retiring from politics in order to assume for himself a post of “national leader” – possibly, as the head of the recently created Public Chamber – to stay alert of developments that might require his intervention. A dismissal of the government was expected and, here we go, it was announced in August 2007.

This carefully crafted plan seemed to unravel in September of 2007, when neither of the presidential hopefuls declared their intention to run. Their silence was deafening. Then, it was Putin himself who proclaimed the name of the one to whom he transferred the reins of power. Instead of asserting his authority as the new leader, the chosen candidate begged his benefactor to share with him this heavy duty by taking control over the government. No more was there talk of the competition among alternative political and economic platforms. Under the murky slogan of “Putin’s Plan,” now the only party of power, United Russia, and now the only presidential contender, Dmitry Medvedev, conveniently won the parliamentary and presidential elections even though the opposition cried foul.

I think this historical discourse answers the question of whether Medvedev will run for president without Putin’s consent in 2012. His chances to do so have been in decline since September of 2007, when he was still a relative unknown. Now he is a well-known personality and one that does not instill much confidence, first of all in Russian bureaucrats who are not betting on him to run. The bureaucracy has many shortcomings, but the inability to predict who will be the next head of state is not one of them.

So Yurgens and Gontmakher would fare politically better if they stopped inciting their idol to take miscalculated steps or risk the loss of state funding to their respected institutes. If Medvedev will rebel now, the chances are that he will leave office in disgrace.

Were the decision that Putin took in 2007 and the consequent developments in the best interests of Russia? Only history will tell. Putin is a very talented tactician, but I doubt that he is capable of grasping the wider picture, say, that goes beyond the five-year frame. Individually, he is the embodiment of the American dream: a man who has come from rags to riches. Yet, his chances of securing a high place in Russian history suffered a blow in 2007 when he denied the growth of civic activity in this country, and I do not see how he will manage to raise his historical rating in the years to come.

Ira Strauss, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington DC

It is not my business to predict what Medvedev will do. But it is all our business to say that it is way off base to "raise the specter of a Gorbachev-style unraveling of the country" if Medvedev runs, or if he makes political reforms.

There is no such danger. Raising the specter is naive of some, demagogic – like Putin at his worst – in the case of others.

It is a myth of the Putin era that Russia was disintegrating and Putin saved it. In historical fact, Putin continued the consolidation of the central government that began under Yeltsin. By the time of the collapse of the ruble in 1998, the state was solid enough that there were no secessionist effects, although the ruble's fall did revive fears upon which Putin was later able to play.

Putin added, to Yeltsin's state-building measures and to the natural processes, a consensus among the centrist Moscow elite; this enabled him to overcome the hegemony of the two opposite extremist parties, the communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in the Duma, and freed him from Yeltsin's need for debilitating deals with provincial governors to fend off the Duma. This was a useful factor that Putin added, and the only major one; it is what made possible the other consolidation measures such as the "supergovernors." For the rest, the natural consolidation of the state continued apace. The structural consolidation was effectively complete by 2001.

Putin's hysterical reaction to Beslan led to a stage of unnecessary further exacerbation of authoritarianism and centralization. It added nothing to the consolidation of the state; in some respects, by replacing the modernizing federal consolidation with a reversion to feudal patronage relations, it set back the state-building. Consolidation nevertheless continued apace on the level of natural processes: the way in which people settle down into the existing system and accept existing authority as providing accustomed order. It is an ancient point of political science, verified by modern quantitative studies, that the longer a government exists, the more it is likely to continue to exist and to succeed in preventing internal conflict. Time is the main thing needed.

The Soviet Union unraveled for three underlying reasons that are irrelevant to Russia.

Firstly, it was governed by the Communist Party and its total penetration of society more than by the government; as the communist faith unraveled, so did the regime. It was a crisis-mobilization regime and economy, containing inherent obstacles to stabilization despite seven decades of time. Today's Russia has built a government that is more normal, though not fully normal.

Secondly, its federal system was legally confederal, with a sovereign right of the republics to secede; and in practice feudal, with “nomenklatura” fiefdoms strong on the republic level. As the regime unraveled, the state unraveled along “nomenklatura” clan lines and republic lines. Where “nomenklatura” clans were not buttressed by a right to secede, as in sub-union republic entities, secession did not occur despite a period of risk when the central state seemed to be disintegrating. That period was already over in the early 1990s and is not going to return.

Thirdly, the Soviet Union’s population was 50 percent non-Russian. For nearly half of the population, it was an alien empire, held together for a time by the penetration of the communist faith into the national elite. Most of that population was concentrated on union republic lines and could plausibly succeed into semi-viable states. A much smaller non-Russian fraction remains within today's Russia. This has been a source of open sores from the start in the Caucasus; nothing fundamental has changed in this regard since 1991, and nothing is likely to change, irrespective of what goes on in Moscow. All solutions from Moscow have both worked and failed; there is no ultimate solution in sight, nor any final loss. But, apart from the northern Caucasus, Russia's stabilization has proceeded apace.

The Soviet regime had to fulfill an impossible Hegelian task: stepping down from a master-slave relationship without getting killed by the slave. And not just that; it had to step down from three masterships at the same time: the political dictatorship, the command economy, and the empire. It was impossible to do this without mistakes. Of course, Gorbachev made mistakes; the miracle is how few of them he made – that he enabled the regime to step down peacefully from all three masterships, and the fact that there was no central civil war, in contrast to Yugoslavia. It is impossible to know whether, in the absence of some mistakes, the break-up could have been avoided or minimized (i.e. limited to some of the Baltic and trans-Caucasus states). Perhaps Gorbachev could have gone along with Democratic Russia's demands for new federal elections in 1990, avoiding the war of laws in which multi-party elections gave the republic governments greater legitimacy than the union government; he claims hardliners prevented him from doing it. Perhaps hardliners could have taken a deep breath and decided against trying the August coup. But it is all water under the bridge now.

If Putin fights Medvedev, he will undermine his one major contribution to Russia's stabilization: the consolidation of the moderate sector of the central elite. This will not bring back the disintegration of 1989 to 1991. It could, however, bring back milder weaknesses of central authority, such as persisted into the mid and late 1990s.

The one case in which it could do genuine, but still limited, damage, would be if Putin were to compete in a life-and-death struggle against Medvedev for buying or coercing the loyalty of the governors in order to rig the elections province by province. Then new bargains would no doubt be struck with the governors, at some expense to central authority; and the damage would have to be undone again after the elections, no doubt a result that would be achieved relatively quickly in most ethnic Russian regions, more slowly in some other regions. In the worst case, it could exacerbate separatist terrorism in the Caucasus. This would, of course, have nothing in common with the break-up of the central state that occurred with the Soviet collapse; the comparison remains illicit. But it would be a serious cost.

Neither Gorbachev-type reforms nor Yeltsin-type reforms could cause a break-up in the Russia that exists today. Only a total patronage struggle for power, in effect a political civil war, could conceivably bring about a break-up, and even then only at the margins of the country at most. If this were to happen, it is fairly clear already that it would be by the choice and responsibility of Putin.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

A complementary question should be: how much credibility would a surprise candidate Medvedev have, if he were to override his own very recent assurances about identity of purpose with Putin and declare a “separatist” presidential candidacy? Not to mention the absence in the Russian political scene of a significant party, presently uncommitted to a proprietary candidate that could wish to be the organizational platform for an outsider candidacy.

An opinion is evolving that the single-minded promotion of the idea of a “separate” Medvedev presidential candidacy is the product of a marginal coterie who are using the image of Medvedev to invent an alternative for their own political purposes. Unable to become candidates themselves, they are trying to exploit Medvedev in the hope of conjuring a scenario that would satisfy their ambitions.

It has been noted that the inventors of these rumors never once mention the well-being of their own country – Russia– as the purpose of their efforts. Quite sincerely (and with infantile directness), their goal is the winning of the presidency in Russia – for what purpose they do not declare. This is very questionable democratic behavior, indeed.

The use of a Yeltsin-Gorbachev paradigm as a prototype for a wished-for future confrontation exposes a profound lack of understanding of Russian domestic politics in the early 1990s. Two possible reasons emerge – the fantasists are fixated on the “Yeltsin era” as a kind of political “Golden Age” and seek its repetition; without regard for the realities of that period and the very different situation of Russia today. Alternatively, these people are too young to remember in detail what the Yeltsin-Gorbachev dispute was about, and grasp at straws for an image that they think may be appealing.

The fact is that both Medvedev and Putin have repeatedly declared their symphony of objectives, while allowing for a distinction in methods and approaches. These declarations have been made in many situations and in many instances, including as recently as the past week (Putin at the Lake Seliger Youth Assembly). So what the promoters of a Medvedev “independent” candidacy intend to achieve is not a change in policy. Perhaps they propose to split the electorate by a competition between two equally attractive candidates, in which case neither would win, and the beneficiary would be the Russian Communist Party (CPRF). Are the proponents of an independent candidacy by Medvedev agents of the CPRF and of Gennady Zyuganov? One must doubt this, although the history of electoral dirty tricks in democracies is very rich in examples, and in this context such a scheme would not be entirely surprising.

In summary, the stated innuendo evidently contradicts the repeated and recent declarations of the two principals in the topic. Constant repetition of the same invented scenario is more telling about the thinking of those who invent and promote it and is not very explanatory about Russian electoral politics as a whole. Some observers qualify these promotions as adolescents’ immature wishful thinking.

Within a finite number of weeks, the situation shall become unambiguously clear.
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