Russia Profile Weekly Expert Panel: Who Is The Boss In Russia?
|Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
|Contributors: Eugene Kolesnikov, Ethan Burger, Stephen Blank, Ira Straus
As President Dmitry Medvedev heads for his first G8 summit in Japan, the rest of the G8 leaders must be quietly wondering whether the new guy in town has full authority in his own country.
Just days before the G8 summit, Moscow is awash with rumors about Medvedev’s real relationship with Putin and the latter’s impact on the making of both foreign and domestic policy.
Analysts have not reached an agreement on this issue. Some argue that the handover of power has been only symbolic and procedural, but not substantive, with Putin retaining the ultimate authority and ability to influence all aspects of Russian political life. Polls show that the Russian people continue to view Putin as the “supreme leader” who is making the most important decisions. Polls also reveal that Medvedev is not catching up with Putin in approval ratings. Currently, he is stuck at around 47 percent, while Putin continues to fly sky-high at over 70 percent.
As Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center argued in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Medvedev is no more than a co-pilot in the cockpit, while our captain is still Putin. “Medvedev does not wield clout and therefore cannot change anything even if he has a mind to do so,” Petrov argued.
Our fellow panelist Vlad Sobell of Daiwa Institute of Research tossed out an analytical bombshell last week by arguing in his latest research paper that the Putin-Medvedev tandem is a bad idea, and that Putin might have committed a major strategic error by not departing the political scene after Medvedev’s election.
Sobell argued that, while there has been a political reshuffle in Moscow, there has been no change of leadership. “Putin has ceased to be president, but supreme power has moved with him to his new post. This has been a theater, featuring formal, rather than real change,” Sobell said.
He further agued that nominal leadership transition entails heavy costs that, over the long run, might outweigh the benefits of any short-term political stability. “One of the immediate consequences is the weakening of the domestic and international authority of his successor, President Medvedev,” Sobell argued. “At present, it is unclear if and when Medvedev will truly take up the reins of power.”
“By staying on as informal locus of supreme authority, Putin has merely postponed, rather than resolved, the long-standing problem of how to safely accomplish the change of leader. Thus he has primed something of an instability ‘time-bomb’, which will be more difficult to ‘defuse’ the longer he remains in this role,” Sobell continued.
Some strongly disagree with Sobell, arguing that Medvedev is slowly but surely taking control and is beginning to make his mark on policy. As Gordon Hahn of the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS) in Monterey, CA, argued in a recent Russia Profile piece, Medvedev gradually ushers in a new era of political leadership in Russia.
“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 only so gradually,” Hahn said.
“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,” Hahn explained.
Others also see signs of a political thaw gradually emerging in Russia under Medvedev. His think tank has just released a provocative report on the state of democracy in Russia that advocates a gradual transition to a much more open and competitive political system in the country. There is renewed talk about reinstituting direct gubernatorial elections, and Medvedev has been purposefully building up the Just Russia Party as a serious political competitor to Putin’s United Russia. Many analysts argue that Putin is coaching Medvedev to prepare his own exit from the scene and has even selected Igor Shuvalov as his own eventual replacement as prime minister.
So who is the real boss in Russia these days? Has Putin indeed committed a strategic blunder by postponing, rather than executing completely, the political transition in Russia? Will this indeed one day lead to turmoil and instability, or will Putin gradually fade away as a Supreme Leader and turn into something of a “Minister Mentor” without any executive power? Has Medvedev’s domestic and international authority really been weakened? What kind of a G8 leader does this make Medvedev? Will he be taken seriously?
Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, The Netherlands:
Decentralized power is bad for Russia. Gubernatorial elections are extremely bad for Russia. What is the benefit of playing an election game at the regional level when populace cannot yet democratically rule small villages and districts? It will take generations to learn the ropes of democratic institutions. If some of the elites think that the warm theoretical notion of self-governance can be quickly and easily applied to the rough terrain of Russian realities, they are making a morbid mistake.
Russia’s success over the last eight years has been based on the centralism, dirigisme and the power vertical. Removing this bedrock now will lead to a relapse into the chaos of the 1990s, if not worse. What Russia needs much more than a Western-style democracy is the rule of law, accountability of government to a publicly endorsed and powerful political party and a chastised bureaucracy. Strategic planning, state directed investment and capitalist incentives will do the rest for the country and its people.
From this point of view, the Medvedev-Putin duumvirate looks decisively temporary. Putin fills the institutional void created by the lack of a consolidated, stable, powerful, popular and publicly accountable political force. United Russia can become such a political force, but this may take a few years. When such a force is in place, Russia can return to the traditional one-man type of rule.
Vlad Sobell is right in the sense that the current setup is inherently very unstable. What holds it together is the personal trust between the two leaders. Let us hope that this trust will not disappear until the centralized party system takes hold in Russia. Any other outcome is likely to be disastrous.
Ethan Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:
In the mid-1960s, the late Alfred G. Mayer popularized the “corporate model” for understanding the Soviet Union (see The Soviet Political System: An Interpretation, Random House, 1965). In the post-Stalin years, the country did not clearly fit the “totalitarian” paradigm – academics and government officials sought new frameworks for understanding the Soviet domestic and foreign policy. The “corporate model” had its drawbacks, but, as an analytic tool, it was more helpful than the system described by Merle Fainsod, Hannah Arendt and George Kennan in the earlier eras. In a nutshell, the corporate model asked “is it not helpful to conceptualize the USSR as what might occur if General Motors were entrusted with the task of running the country?”
In the aftermath of the financial scandals of recent years, corporate governance has become a hot topic for academia as well as the private and public sectors throughout the world. Some of the major questions in the area of corporate governance include (i) whether one individual should be both the Chief Executive Officer (CEO – usually the entity's president) as well as the chairman of the board (in the case of contemporary Russia, the Prime Minister)? (ii) how should both individuals be selected? and (iii) what is the ideal composition of the Board and the proper level of its “activism” with respect to management? How corporations are managed varies considerably from country to country, particularly the role of shareholders (owners) and stakeholders – perhaps, collectively, citizens in the context of a political entity? Imagine that Russia is a corporation that is a huge conglomerate in the natural resource sector – how useful is the “corporate model?”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin [the corporation's board chairman], after stepping down as CEO, designated a loyal and capable individual, Dmitry Medevev, as his replacement. Fortunately, a lawyer with an intelligentsia upbringing, rather than someone from the KGB – having a world view heavily influenced by concerns over national security matters.
Over time, the Board Chairman becomes less interested in the day-to-day corporate matters. Prior to retiring, the former CEO leaves his successor plans to be executed in the coming years, which the successor had agreed to follow, including the reduction of the power of shareholders (i.e. the political subdivisions of the Russian Federation’s heads and legislatures and the Federal Assembly). Even the best plans cannot anticipate all future developments – circumstances change and the Board Chairman cannot usually exercise control over most executive personnel appointments (particularly at the mid and low levels).
The above discussion brings me back to the question posed: “Who is the ‘Boss’ in Russia?” For the foreseeable future, the answer remains Mr. Putin (with Mr. Medvedev's acquiesce). The situation may not remain static over time –there are three areas to watch:
1) how rigorous will the Anti-Corruption campaign prove to be? I am not aware of any political actors that publicly stated that they support a corrupt system. Russian public opinion opposes corruption. Politicians and experts are in agreement that it harms the Russian economy. It will be important to see: (a) will the campaign against corruption have sufficient resources and personnel to have an impact; (b) who will become the “targets” of the anti-corruption campaign, (c) how far in the past will the authorities investigate and prosecute, (d) the degree of selectivity in the manner in which it is carried out (organization, political level, connections, etc.), (e) what restrictions will be imposed on government officials and their families from benefiting from the economic performance of commercial entities – this is a huge debate that is a litmus test for the battle of connections vs. merit in the Russian society;
2) will the extreme centralization of the Russian Federation be maintained? One of Putin’s “triumphs” was recentralizing the Russian state. Granted, destroying petty fiefdom and establishing uniformity in the way that the government operates may not have been entirely a bad thing, but Russia is a federal and diverse (ethnic/national and economic) state. The late U.S. Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives’ observation that “all politics are local” is probably one of the most frequently quoted lines about how incumbent officials continually get re-elected.
People want a say over things that have an impact on their lives, the environment, jobs, health care, roads, schools, etc. The Russian people don’t fear the break-up of the Russian state as they might have under Yeltsin. Even if one of Mr. Putin’s achievements was restoring Russia economically and psychological, the country need not be run like a centralized empire in the 21st Century – times have changed, as has the price of oil.
3) human rights and media freedom? While the Russian people may be more tolerant of state control of dissent than citizens of most European countries, even the Chinese leadership is being asked why the government buildings withstood the recent earthquake while the schools collapsed (killing children in the process). The media should raise such questions to keep politicians in line. The Russian middle class is ecstatic about having the right to travel abroad and Internet access. Political systems where the governments enjoy the support of the population should not fear increased contact with foreign people and ideas. The Russian people are proud of their culture and history. And while their standard of living is below that of people in many countries, they live better than the majority of people in the world.
Putin and his closest collaborators have guaranteed that they will have both money and influence in the future. Medvedev was a beneficiary of Putin’s presidency. He probably knows who abused his power when in office. So long as he does not attempt to undo the rules established by Putin, Putin can allow the system to operate without having to intervene and reassert his authority.
On the other hand, Medvedev can “liberalize” in areas “i,” “ii” and “iii” without challenging the desires of his former boss.
Professor Stephen Blank, The US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:
Obviously nobody knows for sure who is boss.
We can surmise that Putin and Medvedev discussed the succession quite extensively and possibly contemplated or planned for the situation that exists now. But, of course, this remains conjecture, not certainty.
However, there is no sign that Medvedev is not being taken seriously abroad and he has both traveled extensively and made some important speeches on foreign policy, namely in Berlin and St. Petersburg.
While Putin has conducted foreign policy meetings, e.g. with the Iranian president and in Paris, he is not undermining Medvedev either in public or, insofar as we can tell, in private.
Nevertheless, the logic of the system suggests that Putin has made a mistake, since an autocrat cannot sponsor faked elections for a successor, stay on in an ostensibly subordinate role, and expect a kind of a gradual change from above to more democratic forms without unleashing unforeseeable political forces.
This is especially true at a time of increasing inflation and when Russia faces major foreign and economic policy challenges. Since we do not know the precise “correlation of forces” in Russian politics, we cannot yet determine to what degree, if any, Sobell’s analysis may be right or wrong, or by how much it may or may not be off the mark.
It does seem clear that a fluid political situation is emerging because of the illegitimacy and inconclusive nature of the succession, factors that reach back to one of the system’s Achilles heels – the lack of any legal succession formula.
Medvedev’s announced intention on combating corruption will be an interesting revelation of the true nature of the political scene. I see signs that he is going to use this campaign to clean house and purge some of those who have obstructed him. The arrests of 18 leading Russian mafiosi in Spain, all of whom apparently are very well connected at the Kremlin, but who also apparently have disdain for Medvedev, suggests an opportunity to strike at these “barons” on the grounds of corruption, since Madrid can undoubtedly furnish the evidence.
While the G8 leaders may take Medvedev seriously, these crime bosses and, presumably, their patrons did not do so. And they may soon learn an unpleasant lesson. But, it remains unclear whether or not there will be an “apertura” to democracy or just another of the reshufflings and vain efforts to square the circle from the top that are so commonplace in Russian history.
Ira Straus, US Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO:
I do not see any “analytical bombshell” to discuss here. To be sure, it is welcome news that Sobell has found to say something critical about Putin and Putinized democracy, but he managed to complain not about the mountain but the molehill – not the anti-democratic conduct of the election, with its massive coercive pressures reminiscent of Soviet times to get the “correct” turnout and vote count, but the failure of Putin afterwards to treat the election seriously as a selection by the people of a new sovereign leader.
Viewed on a comparative scale, the election was less meaningful as an electoral process than the recent one in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe lost in the first round, contemplated stepping down (enough information still flows from his circle of siloviki that we were able to learn this), had to resort to massive violence to steal the election in the second round, and still faces a parliament. This is a sad comparison for those of us who think of Russia as a society with a mostly European culture and history.
Since Medvedev lacks electoral authority, any accrual of authority on his part can only come gradually, mostly by grace of Putin, partly also by osmosis from the vast powers inhering in the Kremlin for centuries and in the office of the Presidency for a dozen years of the current Constitution. No one knows how Putin’s “grace” will evolve, not even Putin himself. Putin may know his intentions about how it should evolve, but intentions – even good intentions and sincere ones – usually change in the face of events and circumstances. Gordon Hahn is one of the best readers of the intentions of the Russian leadership, and Western observers ought to be encouraged by the fact that he gives a fairly hopeful reading on this. However, the intentions of Putin and his regime have already changed substantially in the course of the years since 1999, and not just once or in a single direction.
A bit of context. Putin's choice of Medvedev among his underlings to assume the formal powers of the Presidency was itself a choice about direction, and a positive choice. It had considerably more importance than W estern observers are noticing, as they go about debating whether Medvedev has or will have much power. It means that there is an opening of sorts for improved relations; and that such an opening as has existed throughout the Putin era has not closed, despite the fears that it was closing as Putin got worse and worse in his last years and the “succession” neared. Putin’s choice could easily have gone the other way – in favor of someone more hard-line, in keeping with the main thrust of his last several years – rather than someone more moderate and westernist like Medvedev.
However, the extent of the opening, or retention of the previous opening, is still quite limited. Both the slim power of Medvedev and the uncertainty about his future authority serve to limit it.
It is probable, but uncertain that Putin intends to gradually let Medvedev assume more of the reins of power. There is no certainty as to how much more that “more” would be. And it is completely uncertain whether he will carry out this intention.
For now, the weakness of Medvedev and the uncertainty about his future role makes him a weak representative of Russia abroad. At the same time, Putin is also a weakened representative of Russia abroad, as he is, in most respects, not the lawful or legitimate representative of Russia in this sphere.
This means Russia is in a poor position to conduct negotiations and make commitments. It is also in a poor position to float proposals for improved relations with the West; every word from either leader is deservedly subject to speculation about its significance in the complex Kremlinological situation.
This novel, institutional distrust comes on top of the deep distrust Russia earned for itself over its seven Soviet decades. Gorbachev and Yeltsin managed mostly to dispel that old distrust, but Putin has almost gleefully rebuilt it.
In these conditions, even those words from Medvedev and Putin that warrant being heard on their merits, whether as comments on Western policies or as proposals for improving relations, end up being heard mainly for speculation about what political game the words are meant to play, not for their substance. This is the unfortunate reality with which Medvedev must live. He will need to learn quickly to be extremely patient with the world for its failure to hear him as seriously as he’d like to be heard, or for the West’s failure to take him up on his suggestions, which he probably sincerely believes would be in the West’s own interest. He will have to be every bit as patient with the West as he is compelled to be with Putin. If he shows this patience, and if he does gradually garner genuine authority, the opening to the West may yet lead someday to something of major mutual benefit.