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Analysis & Opinion
04.04.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Will Medvedev Wage War On Siloviki?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Ethan S. Burger, Alexander Rahr

Russia’s President-elect Dmitry Medvedev has publicly warned the group of former security officials in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle (also known as the siloviki) against attempts to test the new configuration of power, in which President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin would jointly rule Russia.

In excerpts from a book about the new president published on Medvedev’s personal web site (, Medvedev has predicted that some people might try to challenge his presidency – the first public acknowledgement of a fierce power struggle between the feuding Kremlin clans that threatens to unravel the smooth transfer of power from Putin to Medvedev.

It is no secret to anybody in Moscow that a group of President Putin’s closest friends from the KGB, led by the powerful Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Igor Sechin, have opposed Medvedev’s nomination as Putin’s successor. They have tried either to persuade Putin to stay for an unconstitutional third term or temporarily transfer power to a seat holder, like the elderly Prime Minister Victor Zubkov, in order to return to the Kremlin in a few months.

By choosing Medvedev over Zubkov or Sergey Ivanov, Putin defied the wishes of the siloviki clan, thus instantly creating a powerful opposition to Medvedev’s presidency within the Russian ruling class. Whether this was Putin’s intention from the beginning remains to be seen, but the reality today is that Putin essentially must remain at the center of Russian politics to guarantee that his chosen successor is not eaten alive by some of the former’s closest friends.

Medvedev is fully aware of the risks and challenges before him. Their double act with Putin is unusual for Russia with its tradition of a single, strong ruler.

“As for concerns (about the Putin-Medvedev partnership) they, of course, exist and will continue to exist,” Medvedev said in an interview for the book by a prominent Russian TV personality Nikolai Svanidze.

“People are going to test it for durability. That is obvious. I am sure that there are some people who are going to interpret this arrangement in their own way, and who will look for holes in it. They will do what people in politics do, which is political maneuvering. But we are sufficiently grown-up lads to handle this,” Medvedev said.

By this, the president-elect seems to mean that he understands the silovikis’ game: work to undermine the new President’s authority, obstruct his political initiatives, and thus demonstrate his ineffectiveness as the top Russian leader both to the Russian public and, most importantly, to Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev is voicing both a warning to the siloviki, hinting that under his rule a background in security services will no longer be a determining qualification for a senior government post, and extending an olive branch to those members of the security services who are ready and willing to work with him.

In the interview for the book, Medvedev said he had no objection to former security officers holding top government posts.

“They are people, just like everyone else. They should not be demonized or made out to be sacred. Sometimes there are more of them in power, sometimes fewer,” he said.

But in his earlier speeches and interviews, including the latest interview with the Financial Times, he strongly hinted at his intention to restrict the role of the siloviki in running Russia.

For instance, in a campaign speech in Krasnoyarsk last February, Medvedev said that senior government officials should not be appointed board members and even board chairmen of major Russian companies, while the Russian government should hire independent directors, including foreigners, to represent the government’s interests. In both the FT interview and in excerpts from the book, he speaks out against the proliferation of state corporations and even calls for their elimination or privatization.

These initiatives are particularly unpalatable to the siloviki, as they aim to undermine their financial base and leave them with little economic clout. Without chairmanship at Rosneft, Transneft, or at Rostechnologii, the siloviki would have little sway in deciding crucial issues.

Medvedev appears to have declared a war on the siloviki from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But will he succeed? Does the new Russian president have the wherewithal and enough powerful allies to win this battle? Who are his principal allies and how much clout do they have? Where is Vladimir Putin on this issue? Would he fully back his successor, and even endorse some essential personnel changes at the security agencies that Medvedev needs to implement in order to assert his primacy? What does this struggle mean for the stability of Russia and Medvedev’s ambitious social development program? What does it mean for Medvedev’s first foreign policy initiatives?


Alexander Rahr, Director, Russia Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin, and Professor of History, MGIMO University, Moscow:

What we are seeing in Russia is a reshuffling of the state mechanisms. Russia is moving toward a kind of double rule, and the future president and the future prime minister have to create a workable apparatus which must avoid future turf wars and rivalries between the Kremlin and the Russian White House. Dmitry Medvedev cannot win a war against the siloviki at this time, and he has no “OK” from Vladimir Putin to launch such an attack.

A recent visitor from Moscow to Berlin, a usually well-informed former government official, told us that Putin has not allowed Medvedev to form his team yet. Before Medvedev starts to build his presidential administration, Putin will have his government structure firmly in place. And the latter mechanism, not the Kremlin administration, is going to control Russia’s executive branch according to Putin’s plan.

Putin will install five or six deputy prime ministers, three of whom will be high-level siloviks (Igor Sechin, Nikolai Patrushev and Sergey Ivanov). The future government wants to widen its scope and deal not only with the traditional economic portfolios, but also handle foreign, energy security and military-industrial issues. Who are Medvedev’s present allies in this power struggle? Only Anatoly Ivanov, his St. Petersburg class mate, and probably Alexander Voloshin and Anatoly Chubais, who are not members of the present Kremlin leadership.

Sergey Sobyanin, Igor Shuvalov, Vladislav Surkov, Dmitry Kozak, Alexei Kudrin are politically close to Medvedev, but they are still loyal to Putin and take orders from him. It may well be that Medvedev is getting angry and frustrated about being pushed to the sidelines. He is being consulted, but the decisions on how the country will be ruled in the upcoming months are being made primarily by Putin.

The power which Putin intends to preserve is being firmly demonstrated to the entire elite. Medvedev’s warnings against the siloviki should be seen in this context. How can he realize his reform plans when the future government hierarchy will be staffed with his present political rivals who will answer Putin and not him? But what can Medvedev do? Nothing. Only wait. He has previously agreed to the role of a president in a partnership with the prime minister. If he had disagreed, he would not be where he is now.


Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center and Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington:

There is great temptation to speculate (and pontificate) about the impact of Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev’s assumption of the presidency in May. Is there really a significant and permanent split in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle as there seems to be? The conflict would indeed be significant if the underlying causes of the present “struggle” were a result of real policy differences of individuals and institutions, rather than simply a contest for the levers of power (and ultimately money and immunity from prosecution). Will there eventually be a division of spoils among all the major actors, against whom there is probably plenty of “kompromat”?
When charges of corruption are made, are they simply rhetoric? If Medvedev were to take steps to deprive the “current” siloviki of their power or influence and to replace them with people who share the views he has expressed in his recent public statements and interviews, this might indeed have widespread repercussions both in Russia and abroad. It could even result in criminal liability for certain prominent individuals, both inside the government and in the private sector. Needless to say, there might even be legal and economic implications abroad as well, particular for foreign facilitators such as attorneys, auditors, bankers and lawyers.

Alas, being a lawyer “to the bone,” as Medvedev recently described himself, the most important indicator of the future direction of things is not what Medvedev says, but what he attempts to do once he has become president. Who will end up in prominent positions in the government and in business, and why? Will the losers simply be given new positions and allowed to keep any ill-gotten gains as consolation prizes?

The reasons for the present distribution of power in the Russian political system are not always knowable to outsiders. Was such a distribution of power inevitable under the circumstances? Does the difficulty of drawing the lines between the power to determine policy and the power to implement it, as well as the decisions Putin made in order to balance competing interests, make such conflicts inevitable?

It is simply too early to know what Medvedev’s objectives and power will be, as opposed to those of Putin. Having made observations above, I would highly recommend two recent articles that have thoughtfully examined what Medvedev’s role as president might prove to be. First, David Remnick’s “Smoke on the Water” that appeared in the March 10th issue of The New Yorker, points out that there is a tendency in the West to be optimistic about each official transition of political power in the Kremlin. Over the years, Remnick has made insightful observations about the Soviet Union and more recently about Russia.

He recalls that “When Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, and then-KGB Chief Yuri Andropov became general secretary of the Communist Party, the Western press did not skip lightly over the new man's role in crushing the Hungarian uprising, in 1956, and the Prague Spring, in 1968, but it also greeted him with bonbons of wishful description. The (New York) Times reported that Andropov's ‘intense gaze and donnish demeanor gave him the air of a scholar.’ According to Time (magazine), he was a ‘witty conversationalist,’ who listened to the song stylings of Miss Peggy Lee. And an article in The Washington Post Outlook section called him ‘a perfect host,’ who occasionally invited leading dissidents to his home for well-lubricated discussions that sometimes extended into the wee hours of the morning.”

The second source is the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens’ comment, titled “Medvedev should expect the West’s respect – and resolve” that appeared in the March 28th issue. It recognizes the importance of “respect” for one another’s national interests in Russia’s relations with the West that is needed to rebuild relations. The author notes that it “must flow in both directions.”

Perhaps, if this is achieved, “national security” can no longer be used as an excuse for not achieving Medvedev’s declaratory goals of having state policy focus on the social needs of the Russian people, while actually establishing the rule of law and combating corruption.
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