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Analysis & Opinion
01.06.12 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Putin Creates Two Parallel Governments
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Patrick Armstrong, Vladimir Belaeff

After a protracted pause, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the composition of his new government last week and surprised observers by creating two parallel and competing cabinet structures. Why does Putin need two governments instead of one? How effective or inefficient could such an arrangement be with two competing governing teams? What is Putin’s strategic objective – maintaining his personal grip on key government decisions, or balancing an inexperienced team with more seasoned mentors to prevent major policy blunders? How powerful and independent will Medvedev’s cabinet be?

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s new cabinet, announced by Putin, contains both holdovers from the Putin era and many fresh faces – three quarters of the ministers have been replaced, some with real fresh blood (Communications Minister Nicolai Nikiforov, for example, is just 29 years old and has already impressed many with his pioneering work in Tatarstan to create an “online government” and promote Internet access to public schools), others by their former deputies. New Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the former Moscow police chief, is a widely respected professional cop who has risen through the ranks of the police force and has a reputation untainted by corruption.

A new deputy prime minister in charge of social issues, Olga Golodets, comes from the Moscow City government and formerly from Norilsk Nickel and Mikhail Prokhorov’s insurance company, while the minister for communication with Medvedev’s Open Government, Mikhail Abysov, is a billionaire with stakes in energy and Internet startups. Medvedev’s former top aide, Arkady Dvorkovich, becomes a deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector, replacing Putin’s old confidant and “siloviki” leader Igor Sechin, who was appointed the CEO of Rosneft, the state oil giant.

Putin retains his grip on key cabinet posts – defense, finance, economic development and energy – and has installed long-time ally Igor Shuvalov as the single first deputy prime minister. Shuvalov is joined by Putin’s other allies and deputy prime ministers: Dmitry Rogozin (defense industry), Dmitri Kozak (construction and the Sochi Olympic Games of 2014), and Alexander Khloponin (the North Caucasus). Medvedev has succeeded in promoting Vladislav Surkov, another deputy prime minister, to run the cabinet staff, where he is joined by former presidential foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko.

Putin followed the appointments with a decree moving most of his former cabinet to the Kremlin, including some of the most unpopular and controversial figures. Former Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev became the deputy secretary of the Security Council, former Health Minister Tatiana Golikova and former Education Minister Andrei Fursenko became assistants to the president together with former Communications Minister Igor Schegolev and former Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev.

Observers viewed this surprising move by Putin as a sign of his desire to create a parallel cabinet structure to oversee Medvedev’s new government that, being “technical in nature,” will implement the strategic decisions taken by Putin’s Kremlin.

As U.S. analyst Don Jensen wrote for the VOA’s Crossfire program, “With continued access to ‘the body’ (Putin), the new Kremlin team is likely to comprise a parallel government centered in the Presidential Administration that will wield greater authority than Medvedev’s cabinet. This system of dual responsibilities resembles the Soviet-era supervision of the government by the Communist Party apparatus. Putin’s revitalization of the Kremlin’s presidential administration will thus strengthen his own power.”

Jensen further argues that this arrangement allows Putin to keep his electoral promise “to make sweeping changes in the cabinet even as he strengthens his hold on power. On the one hand, the reshuffle suggests that Putin is trying to show that he is responding to street protests that have demanded change. On the other hand, it demonstrates that he has no intention of fundamentally overhauling the system of authoritarian rule over which he has presided in the past decade. What Putin has created is a ‘technical’ government with little political clout. Russia will be ruled, as in the past, by an elite around Putin that is unaccountable to either the government or the country.”

Why does Putin need two governments instead of one? How effective or inefficient could such an arrangement be with two competing governing teams? What is Putin’s strategic objective – maintaining his personal grip on key government decisions, or balancing an inexperienced team with more seasoned mentors to prevent major policy blunders? How powerful and independent will Medvedev’s cabinet be? Could it be a real and effective center of power, balancing out the all too powerful Kremlin? Or will real power belong to a small and informal group around Putin, who will rule out of sight? Does it make the formal institutions of governance, like Medvedev’s cabinet, just a show for public consumption? Would Russia benefit from a switch to a U.S. system, where the president is the chief executive and leads his own cabinet?

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada

As the great “Russianologist” Sherlock Holmes observed: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.”

I’ve never had much use for Kremlinology, either back in the day or now. It is founded upon two fatally weak conjectures. The first is the reductionist notion that Russia (or, earlier, the Soviet Union) can be explained by the relationship between a small group of individuals. Where is the evidence for that? But most absurdly, it imagines that we, outsiders, can understand what those relationships are. Do we, after all this time, understand the relationship between Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin? Or Joseph Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov? Or Stalin and Lavrenty Beria? Why should anyone think we understand the relationship between Putin and Medvedev and how they make decisions? We don’t even know what goes on inside our own government’s offices. Kremlinology’s predictive record is negligible.

A decade or so ago, neo-Kremlinologists spent their time categorizing people into groups: “the family,” “the siloviki,” and I can’t remember the third; but, for some reason, these airy constructions always had three groups. Then I recall a period of speculation that Putin had created a “politburo” in the Security Council to sideline the government. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other weighty think pieces that came and went, predicting the future through imagined personal relationships. None of these efforts ever produced much that was either predictive or explanatory.

Furthermore, it ought to be pretty clear after more than a decade’s observation that Russia has a remarkably collegial, discreet and effective management team. While a few former insiders have gone over to the opposition (Mikhail Kasyanov, Andrei Illarionov and presumably Alexei Kudrin), it is striking how well the team has held together. The second thing a decade’s worth of observation tells us is that Putin is averse to kicking someone into the darkness, and so today we see that old ministers have been “kicked upstairs” to advisory positions in order to preserve their dignity and make way for new people in the government. Perhaps Putin has learned from Lyndon Johnson: “It’s better to have some one inside the tent…”

Thus there is no second or parallel government: there is a team, and it’s the same team that has been running the place for 12 years. Any disagreements are kept inside the box. It is much better to regard Russia’s governing structure as a “black box” of sorts: observe what is said and what happens rather than speculate about the unseen gears inside the box.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Categorical conclusions about the format and the inner workings of the new Russian executive branch may be somewhat premature. It may even be that many of the appointees are unsure at present of how they will work in their new positions.

In most countries of the world, governments are constituted not only by formal, legally defined and structured organizations, but also by less formal assemblies of consultants, strategists, the president’s (or the prime minister’s) networks of friends and “kitchen cabinets” (as in the case of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan). In that context, the new Russian arrangements should not be considered exotic or out of the ordinary.

Within the framework of directives defined by the legislature, the executive branch performs functions in two broad categories: policy formulation (long-range strategic, operational and tactical) and policy execution. The way in which these two functions are allocated to individuals and across organizations is usually fluid and varies in response to many factors. Therefore, it is debatable whether one can visualize “two governments” in Russia – or just one larger conglomerate, of which the cabinet is a major but not the sole component (in the same way as in the United States).

The new Russian cabinet is evidently a Medvedev construct. Several faces in that assemblage are present solely by the choice of the new prime minister. There are many new people who will have to demonstrate their abilities to achieve meaningful success in the daily operational running of Russia’s federal government. These people are more likely to be candidates for policy implementation, although plausibly they might get engaged in some policy formulation as well.

The group of former ministers and other senior government executives who will form what one can loosely call a “corpus of presidential advisors” is more likely to be dedicated to policy formulation and planning, with occasional forays into policy implementation in special cases. One is tempted to offer a historic analogy from an earlier Russia: the Boyar Duma, defining the realm’s strategies and the Dyaki (deacons or ministers) who will be translating policy formulations into practical implementations.

As mentioned earlier, these arrangements are not rare; they are practiced in other countries and stem from the very nature of national governance. Whether the presently announced Russian government arrangement shall be able to work effectively depends greatly on the personalities involved. Time will tell.

How responsive is the new ministerial array to the “street opposition?” Realistically, the desire to see substantial change in ministerial personnel was felt in Russia for quite some time, significantly before the emergence of the recent spate of demonstrations by the “street opposition.” At this moment, the neo-communist opposition in the streets of Moscow, with its anarchist allies and pro-Nazi participants, is given far too much credit for political change.

The street opposition is stridently silent on offers of realistic alternatives; “Russia without Putin” is not a program. The organizers and ideologues of street protests surely know this, but they also surely know that their motley assemblage of disaffected or anarchistic participants will not be able to agree on a common positive platform. They are united only by their rejection and their denial, not by a positive common goal. Positive political reform, like the formation of a new government, will not be acceptable to those whose main slogan is “Doloi!” (“Down with!”). Everyone understands this, and so fresh faces in the cabinet are not a response to protests, because a response of this kind would be pointless: it would not satisfy the protesters in the least bit.
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