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Analysis & Opinion
02.10.09 Will Putin And Medvedev Both Run In 2012?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Sergei Roy, Ira Straus

The Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a fierce presidential battle for 2012 more than two years ahead of schedule, by saying that he and the current President Dmitry Medvedev would “figure it out between ourselves which of us would run in 2012.” His casual but deliberate comment at the meeting with members of the Valdai Club three weeks ago has sparked speculation about whether Medvedev might run against his mentor. Will we see a truly competitive presidential race in 2012, with a clear choice in strategy for Russia? Will they both run? Is 2012 shaping up as an electoral battle of the giants and another watershed year for Russia?

Putin’s statement was intended as a put-down to president Medvedev, a day after Medvedev posted his “Go Russia!” appeal in which he criticized the order of business that has ossified under Putin’s rule. Putin directly hinted at Medvedev’s limited capacity to make decisions on matters as crucial for him as running for a second term.

Coming just a week before Medvedev’s visit to the UN General Assembly in New York and a G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, Putin’s comment served to undercut the president’s international credibility as Russia’s chief agent abroad. Putin left Medvedev no other option but to rush out a public, albeit tongue in cheek, statement of his own, claiming that he intends to run again in 2012.

Putin’s remark mobilized Medvedev’s supporters, like former Executive Secretary of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Igor Yurgens, to launch a public campaign to discourage Putin from running in 2012. Yurgens said that Putin would look like Brezhnev were he to run again in 2012 with the possibility of serving two consecutive six-year terms (Putin will turn 60 in 2012).

It is clear that despite assurances of political and personal closeness between Putin and Medvedev, they already have ideologically diverging teams that would hate to see their respective bosses yield the right of way.

Putin is already in full campaign mode with public events and policy decisions to shore up his electoral ratings. Medvedev is busy building his own support base and projecting the image of the nation’s modernizer and an agent of badly needed change. Unlike Putin, he still lacks a political party he can call home, but this could change.

Will we see a truly competitive presidential race in 2012 with a clear choice in strategy for Russia? Will they both run? Is 2012 shaping up as an electoral battle of the giants and another watershed year for Russia? Or will they indeed settle this between themselves, with Putin emerging as a likely candidate? What outcome would Russia benefit from most? Is there a role for the West to play in influencing these decisions?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

It is highly doubtful that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev will both run for the Russian presidency in 2012. In politics, two years is a long time. Although Putin's approval ratings among the Russian electorate are currently higher than those of Medvedev (approximately (70 percent to 60 percent), there are many variables that could change the situation and would alter Putin's calculus.

Putin's formative years were during the Soviet era, during which time the only way to guarantee one's quality of life was to retain power. This phenomenon is largely over. A former Russian president (and his family) enjoys immunity for life under Russian Federal Law. Although new laws can be enacted that could limit the extent of such presidential immunity (the Russian Constitution merely states that it exists), this seems politically unlikely.

Frankly, I fail to understand why Putin would like to return to the presidency, particularly since he will have to deal with problems of mammoth proportions. A non-exhaustive list would include preserving the territorial integrity of Russia, particularly in the Caucuses; managing the country's economic recovery; addressing the country's demographic and health crisis; maintaining the support of increasingly powerful interest groups and regional leaders, many of whom are not dependent on Moscow for their power; and avoiding the consequences of an inter-elite struggle likely to arise from the much-heralded increased effort to combat corruption. Whatever policies are pursued in these areas are likely to produce a dynamic situation unprecedented in Russian history.

Whereas prime minister Putin's "expertise" lies in the national security area, president Medvedev can find numerous experts to advise him on such matters (including some who formerly worked for Putin). At the same time, in attitude, demeanor, education, experience and world view, Medvedev is better equipped to manage the badly-needed new Russian foreign and domestic policies. Medvedev has a deep appreciation of transnational commercial relations and recognizes the importance of creating a rule of law in Russia -- he is a product of the Mikhail Gorbachev era, and was widely liked both by his students and colleagues when he was an academic (like his parents).

It is not accidental that president Medvedev has tried to differentiate himself from prime minister Putin. Granted, he is careful not to directly criticize his mentor. Medvedev currently lacks a significant power base. He is both personally loyal to his former mentor and cautious by nature, yet under the Russian Constitution he can fire prime minister Putin whenever he chooses. While such an action would almost certainly produce a political crisis, why would Putin want to remain prime minister or return to the presidency? He can happily leave politics (Bill Clinton and Al Gore provide useful role models).

It would be a mistake to overlook the potential role of president Medvedev’s wife Svetlana in his decision-making. She may prove to be Russia's equivalent of Lady Macbeth - not to enhance her own power behind her indecisive husband, but to strengthen him; she believes he can put Russia back on the right path. According to one Italian journalist, she indicated that Medvedev should become Russia's leader not only by title, but in fact.

Recall that in 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's re-nomination as the Democratic candidate for president seemed all but inevitable. The country was divided over the Vietnam War. Racial tensions were high. But in the first Democratic primary held in New Hampshire, the anti-war candidate Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, while narrowly losing the popular vote to Johnson, ended up with a majority of the state's convention delegates. Surprised, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. But for his assassination in California (after winning that state's primary), New York Senator Robert Kennedy would probably have ended up with the Democratic Party's nomination for president. In hindsight, though disappointed by his failure to win the backing of the U.S. electorate, Lyndon Johnson was probably relieved to leave office.

Similarly in Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably had to resort to fraud to defeat his opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi (whose wife, like Svetlana Medvedeva, is well-educated and not afraid to speak her mind), whom the Iranian electorate regarded as more open to political change domestically and committed to reducing tensions with not only Britain, France, and the United States, but also the Arab countries. Many see Iran as being in a pre-revolutionary situation, since the system has not been responsive to the people's needs. This situation in general terms sounds a bit like contemporary Russia.

Many prominent Russians believe the country is on the wrong course. I urge you to ignore the polls as well as many of the self-declared pundits, and ask your Russian friends whether Medvedev or Putin is more likely to improve their quality of life and improve the country's international standing. You may be surprised by what you hear.

If the re-election of Medvedev is not viewed by Putin and his principal supporters and beneficiaries as threatening to their interests, and they believe that Medvedev has the vision and capability to improve Russia's international standing and the country's economy, then president Medvedev may indeed be reelected. Putin's fears may be unjustified. He placed the country in capable hands -- whatever one thinks of his legacy, there are few who would deny that Dmitry Medvedev is up to the task to meet the challenges Russia will face in the future and is more likely to receive the critical support of foreign political and business leaders. Medvedev will remain true to the advancement of Russia's national interests - that is his responsibility as president, and it ensures his political survival. A re-elected president Medvedev does not want to expend energy fighting petty personal battles when he can concentrate on policy issues. Prime minister Putin should place Russia's national interests above what he may perceive to be his own and reach an understanding with his former prot?g?.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., United States:

In electoral politics, the year 2012 is immensely distant from 2009. This, of course, does not eliminate the readings of political entrails and other forecasting somersaults by electoral augurs among the chattering classes.
Meanwhile, here are some recent Russian opinion polls by VTsIOM, for 19 to 20 of September, 2009 (1,600 respondents, 46 regions, 153 population centers, the statistical margin of error at 3.4 percent). If Russia’s presidential elections were to be held on the nearest Sunday, Dmitry Medvedev would receive 52 percent of likely voters, out of a field of ten plausible candidates, which did not include Vladimir Putin. What is very significant is that second place alternatives (Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), received five percent each. Given the statistical margin of error at 3.4 percent, we see that other potential presidential candidates (not considering Putin) get nearly zero votes against Medvedev.

At the same time, popular trust in Russian politicians polls at 53 percent for Putin and 44 percent for Medvedev, and the closest runners-up are at eight percent. And the same polls rate Russian political parties in a putative vote to the State Duma as follows: United Russia at 54 percent, the KPRF at a distant seven percent, and LDPR with Just Russia at four percent each.

These statistics indicate that at least at present, either Medvedev or Putin – but not both at once – can be a viable candidate for presidency. As the incumbent, Medvedev is listed as a putative presidential candidate in current opinion polls. Also observe that only one party in Russia has the electoral credibility to be able to seriously propose a nationwide candidate for the presidency of the Russian Federation.

Therefore, considering available opinion measurements, one can see either one of the two gentlemen as a candidate for president in 2012. Considering that Medvedev would be entitled to a second term of office, and that in general, the tandem is working and will be made to work if necessary – there is much to lose if it stopped – in 2009, one can suppose that in 2012 Medvedev will stand for reelection.

Yet one must remember that the political year 2012 is far in the unforeseeable future, relative to 2009. So what is the point of the present fancies about a Putin-Medvedev presidential contest?

One possible explanation is the apparent quest by some to find (or create) friction between the two blocks in the Russian executive branch. There are cases of use of “evidence” which is so flimsy or trivial that it cannot be justified by any kind of realistic analysis, but is plausible as political propaganda, aimed at destabilizing the present government in Russia.

The reality is that the Russian government has many more reasons for cohesion and commonality of purpose than causes for internal disagreement. One should not interpret differences in style and technical methods as fundamental differences in strategy and objectives.

Any large organization, whether government or business, experiences some degree of internal friction in its daily operations. That aspect is not evidence of functional impairment of structural conflict. The wishful thinking for a divergence between Medvedev and Putin is considered by some analysts as a kind of escapism – as unwillingness to engage Russia’s policies in earnest. It is seen as a wish for the situation to go away, instead of accepting Russia’s political reality and dealing with it in a constructive fashion. Nostalgia for the 1990s is not productive. Those times will not return, no matter who runs for president of Russia in the distant future of 2012.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russian in NATO, Washington, DC:

For two years, Putinists have been saying the West would try to divide Medvedev from Putin. Resentful Russian nationalists have chimed in about this Danger from the West.

Now Putin, by his own hand, has created not only a division, but an element of power struggle between himself and Medvedev.

One wonders whether Putinists and Russian pundits will notice this curious juxtaposition. Or notice its implications for the question of whence the actual threat to Russian stability.

Sergei Roy, Editor,, Moscow:

Both Putin and Medvedev have cautiously announced their decision to run for president in 2012. Having two viable candidates for the post is nothing extraordinary for Russia; rather, it is the next natural step toward full-blown democracy. The previous step was Vladimir Putin’s resolution in 2007 to abide by the Russian Constitution and refuse, against the wishes of many voters, to run for a third term. Instead, he put forward the candidacy of his faithful aide Dmitry Medvedev. Some people, perhaps exaggeratedly, insist that Putin, seen as the nation’s savior, could then have his Labrador elected.

The situation is very different now. In the spirit of the Constitution and in a tradition going back to the times of general secretaries, there exists in Russia’s top hierarchy a “division of labor” between the locus issuing orders and that bearing all responsibility for failure (the credit for success naturally goes to the former). The president outlines policy while the responsibility for its implementation rests with the premier. As the premier is doing his best to cope with a world economic crisis, the president now feels free to criticize his constitutional subordinate for being remiss about fighting the country’s economic backwardness and to publicize his own plans for a beautiful modernized economy – to be implemented by the selfsame premier.

Coupled with the president’s penchant for liberal phraseology (“Freedom is better than non-freedom”), these plans have engendered an as yet un-formalized “Medvedev for president” faction in the bureaucratic and business communities. That is also a natural development. It was predicted during the previous presidential campaign that premier and president might remain as friendly and cooperative as they pleased, but their teams would inevitably go at each other’s throats. Just a fact of bureaucratic life.

Another fact is the desire to find a kind of ideological basis for the conflict: the Putinists are dubbed conservatives while the Medvedevites, liberals. Western opinion, apparently led by none other than U.S. President Barack Obama, seems to accept this antithesis. To me, this merely confirms the Western commentariat’s intrinsic propensity for optical delusions in observing Russia.

In reality, the Medvedev faction is trying to monopolize liberalism as its flag, while painting Putin as a non-liberal. Against a TV background of Putin bawling out Russia’s big business for relying too much on the state, proudly refusing to nationalize any industry as a crisis-combating measure, and coaxing foreign capital to invest in Yamal’s gas fields, this labeling looks plain puerile. Putin’s ideology, what there is of it, is just as liberal as anyone else’s – within reason. Indeed, in this day and age the liberal versus conservative verbiage is totally eclipsed by honest-to-goodness pragmatism. In its name, even such an arch-liberal society as America’s, does not hesitate to rein in the free market: with all the nationalization carried out there, no wonder Obama can barely escape the awful charge of socialism.

The charge of conservatism was leveled at Putin by Medvedev’s advisor Yurgens. However unjustified, that move was understandable as a punch in a political free-for-all. But predictions that Putin might repeat the fate of Brezhnev, turning into a figure of ridicule like the late general secretary, is worse than a punch below the belt: this insult to the nation’s hero went straight below Medvedev’s belt.

And that indicates the weakest point in Medvedev’s aspiration: he lacks a proper political organization. If he is serious about standing up to Putin, he ought to put together a better team and, crucially, to remember that, at a time of crisis, vicious infighting at the top is the last thing this country needs – or will tolerate.

Professor Stephen Blank, the US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

It is impossible to say what will happen in 2012 now, but it is clear that there is growing competition between Putin and Medvedev and that it is spreading to more and more security issues.

I discerned this last year already in regard to policy toward South America, where Putin and his minions, like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, were pursuing a policy aiming at a full-fledged military alliance with Cuba and Venezuela, whereas Medvedev was publicly silent about any of this during his trip to the region.

Since then the range of both internal and external policy issues over which there is discord has expanded to include economic policy at home, membership of the WTO, the response to U.S. President Barack Obama's policy moves, and many others. It also looks like there is a developing gap in both men's positions on the Iranian file.

Thus we can say that there will be competition between them in 2010. By 2012 we may have a clearer picture of what is happening and who has prevailed. But the best thing for Russia would be the defeat of Putin and what he stands for in this contest, followed by an independent and wholly legitimate challenge to Medvedev. For Putin’s victory means the perpetuation of backwardness, conflict with the West, sub-optimal economic policy, increased corruption, repression, and probably a greater likelihood of indulging in military adventurism.

None of these outcomes would benefit Russia as much as a policy aimed at modernization, if not reform, especially as the security threat perceived by the Putinists has been vastly exaggerated and conjured up out of institutionalized paranoia.

It would appear that the Obama administration is attempting to buttress Medvedev by emphasizing his role, which from the protocol standpoint is of course the right thing to do. It remains to be seen how effective this is, and we should watch the fallout on Iran to gauge the success of this policy and the respective strengths of the two Russian rivals.

But above all in foreign policy there should be no unilateral concessions to Russian arguments and claims. Instead there should be a principled mutual dialogue and striving, only where possible, for common ground without yielding on the sovereignty of CIS members or their right to join the EU and NATO and make their own independent economic and political decisions.

This will check Putin’s people diplomatically while offering incentives for a policy more attuned to the priority of economic modernization that Medvedev's team seems to represent.

Most of all, however, the crying need in the United States is for an energy policy that reduces our dependence on hydrocarbons and inspires others to follow our example; along with a coherent EU policy to compel Russia to play by the EU's rules and de-monopolize European energy policies, and a vigorous advancement of the Nabucco pipeline project.

Such policies will force reform on Russia and compel it to move away from dependence on hydrocarbons to more innovative and modern economic activities. That is what Medvedev wants, and those trends should be encouraged wherever possible.
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