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Analysis & Opinion
01.07.08 The Politics Of Unleashing
Comment by Gordon Hahn

There are clear signs that the relationship between Russian Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin and his presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev is one of political mentorship, but not of either one’s political or administrative superiority, and that a thaw in Russia’s once again frozen politics is in the offing. Putin appears to be positioning Medvedev to take over the reins of power and implement a loosening of the Kremlin’s controls – but oh so gradually.

Contrary to expectations of most analysts, there has been a precipitate drop in premier Putin’s public profile as compared to president Medvedev’s. A report by Media Monitoring showed that in the first weeks of Medvedev’s presidency, the new president’s media appearances had significantly exceeded Putin’s. While president Medvedev’s keynote speech and other statements were the highlights of the June 6-8 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin was absent from the event. One agency reported that even Putin’s “first first” deputy premier Igor Shuvalov’s television air time exceed that of Putin – the alleged informal “national leader” – on the last day of the forum. Another reported that Putin berated Shuvalov for his star performance and for supposedly neglecting the needs of the people.

In foreign policy, Medvedev, not Putin, represented Russia to the country’s key European partner, Germany, and key Central Asian ally, Kazakhstan. (Putin, meanwhile, traveled to France.)

Kommersant’s policial analyst Dmitry Kamyshev has perhaps summed it up the best: “(Medvedev) has been signing decrees and laws, appointing and firing federal and regional officials, traveling the Russian provinces, making foreign trips, and meeting with ministers, governors and public leaders. That is to say that he is doing everything Vladimir Putin did before him.”

Indeed, the weight and substance of Medvedev’s presidency are gradually emerging.

We can see the new substance in small but unmistakable signs of a domestic policy shift that is likely to mark off the Medvedev era from the Putin era. Medvedev is replacing Putin’s almost entirely state-oriented policy with a more socially oriented one. Putin’s focus was on dismantling Yeltsin’s asymmetrical federalism, establishment of an ‘executive vertical of power’, and the state’s insulation from and subordination to the oligarchs. Medvedev focuses on improving Russia’s human and social capital by fighting over-regulation and corruption, improving education, and modernizing the economy through the four I’s: institutions, investment, innovation, and infrastructure – a policy a World Bank report recently endorsed.

To be sure, much of this agenda was included in “Plan Putina,” the platform of the pro-Kremlin party that Putin now heads, but it is Medvedev who will gradually put flesh on the bones of this very general program.

An early glasnost-like surge in openness regarding Russia’s present shortcomings from top leaders, including president Medvedev and first deputy premier Shuvalov, includes statements that constitute, perhaps unintentional, but nevertheless implied criticism of Putin’s legacy, though not of Putin himself. At the Petersburg forum, Shuvalov urged "the limitation of the injurious meddling of the state in the economy,” adding: “In recent years, many began to believe again that the state was capable of solving problems of the market, forgetting its peculiarity of creating its own problems." President Medvedev’s apparent hint that he might consider an appeal for amnesty by oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested during Putin’s rule also separates Medvedev from Putin, who, while making the same point a week earlier, condemned Khodorkovsky’s crimes. More recently, Tatarstan President Minitmer Shaimiev, father of Russia’s former federalism dismantled by Putin, asserted the need to return to the election of regional governors and presidents ended by Putin after jihadi hostage-taking at Beslan’s school No. 1. Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, began an internal discussion about possibly doing this sometime during Medvedev’s first term.

Beyond the talk, Medevedev is already putting his own stamp on the official agenda. First, there are growing signs of a political thaw. Within a week of Medvedev’s inauguration, judge Yelena Valyavina openly accused the Kremlin of interfering in an important court case. Valyavina is first deputy of the Supreme Arbitration Court of Arbitration chairman Anton Ivanov, a close ally of Medvedev. A few weeks later, the Constitutional Court found a law used to charge the head of a liberal media NGO unconstitutional, and, later, the charges were dropped. In a series of cases from St. Petersburg to Tatarstan, acquittals freed defendants on trial on rather weak, if not trumped up, charges. Medvedev also adopted a decree establishing a network of regional commissions in tandem with the Public Chamber and Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office to monitor violations of prisoners’ rights, and he rejected draft amendments to the media law that would have made it easier to bring charges against journalists for slander.
Second, Medevedev took the lead in several new foreign policy initiatives. During the noted trip to Berlin, he announced a Russian call for a European energy agreement and for convening a European-wide security conference toward concluding a new European security regime bounded by a legally binding international treaty.

All this does not mean that Putin is not a partner in policymaking. It is unlikely that such a policy change, however tentative it may be, would occur if Putin did not support it. Indeed, Putin might even support a liberalization policy. For now, the division of labor is breaking down as follows: Medvedev is leading foreign policy, the judicial system and law enforcement organs, and the siloviki (special services and military both). Putin is running the economy, property management and distribution, foreign trade, the ruling United Russia party and, through it, the State Duma as well. Thus, the duumvirate is functioning.

But, contrary to the view of many observers, Putin appears to be content with settling into the second-in-command status. Putin stated numerous times that he never wanted to be president and reported halfway through his presidency that he was tired of it, felt isolated, and was longing for the end of his tenure. If this was how Putin really felt, it suggests that his position as premier is one taken as a necessary insurance policy in the event Medvedev proves not up to the task. At the same time, Putin’s presence as premier will allow any Medvedevian thaw to address the shortcomings of his era of stabilization without denying its necessity before proceeding very gradually with carefully calibrated economic and political reforms.

Also, none of this means that the conflict between president Medvedev and premier Putin, or their entourages, is not a real danger. But Putin’s presence can help maintain discipline in the potentially conflicting presidential and governmental bureaucracies and provides protection for Medvedev from the more hard-line siloviki. These siloviki overplayed their hand in the run-up to the Duma elections, forcing Putin to turn away from the candidate as Putin's successor, Sergei Ivanov, and choose Medvedev.

In addition, if Medvedev strays too far and/or falters, Putin will need the siloviki to maintain stability and power. Thus, Putin’s presence also preserves the option of reining in liberal experiments or returning to power, if Putin sees dangers in or begins to disagree sharply with any truly new course.

In short, Medvedev is on a leash. If he learns to stay on the sidewalk and not wander into the traffic, Putin will gradually lengthen and very gradually remove that leash, fade into the premiership and perhaps leave it in a second Medvedev term. In lieu of a major jihadist attack, an assassination, or an overly aggressive Western Russia policy, an economic and political thaw will likely develop at the pace with which Medvedev takes control. Such a thaw will be very gradual – like watching an iceberg melt – but it will melt.

Dr. Gordon M. Hahn is a senior researcher at the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS) and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.
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