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Analysis & Opinion
11.06.10 Will Medvedev Challenge Putin In 2012?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan S. Burger, Igor Torbakov

With presidential elections in Russia less than two years away, opinion polls show that President Dmitry Medvedev is rapidly catching up with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in popularity. Recent polls show a virtual dead heat between them. So could Medvedev think the unthinkable and challenge his mentor at the ballot box in 2012? Will Medvedev have the political resources, the support base and, most importantly, the guts to challenge the man who brought him to the pinnacle of Russian power? How would such a challenge play out in Russia’s clannish politics? How would the Russian elites react to the need to make a political choice that could be fatal?

Prime minister Putin is still the more popular of Russia’s ruling duumvirate. Polls conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation found that President Dmitry Medvedev is trusted by 60 percent, and Putin by 67 percent of voters. At the same time, Levada Center polls indicate that trust in Medvedev is growing. The number of people who believe that Medvedev conducts an independent policy has doubled in the past two years.

A report published in Russian Newsweek revealed that confidential opinion polls run by the Public Opinion Foundation show a virtual dead heat between Putin and Medvedev in the event of a face-off at the ballot box. Thirty two percent said they would vote for Putin and 31 percent for Medvedev. Back in January 2009, 46 percent were prepared to vote for Putin while only 20 percent would vote for Medvedev. Today, were both of them to run, there would be no clear favorite, much less a frontrunner.

Medvedev is getting stronger. People have become used to thinking of him as their president, and are gaining confidence in his ability to rule the nation. They are increasingly comfortable with him as a leader. They are ever more enthusiastic about his agenda of modernization and they are thrilled with his vigilante approach to justice.
Still, the proportion of people who believe that he and Putin rule together has not changed in the past two years. Medvedev is still not seen as an entirely independent figure. Some Russian pundits dismissively call Medvedev “a guy who doesn’t know what he will be doing in two years.”

Medvedev’s recent efforts to reach out to the United Russia party indicate that he is not prepared to stake his political fortunes on other political parties in Russia. Before Medvedev's recent meeting with United Russia it had been possible to assume that he might run for president in 2012 supported by some other political party or coalition. The opposition was counting on it. The Communist Party (KPRF) sponsored a “socialist modernization” concept drawn up for Medvedev, while Just Russia established a youth movement with the telling name of “Forward, Russia!” But the president chose United Russia, and made his choice known. He thus made the worst-case scenario of an open partisan battle with Putin and the United Russia party unlikely.

Instead, Medvedev and his long-time aide Vladislav Surkov seem to be focused on cultivating a strong movement in support of Medvedev’s modernization agenda within United Russia, working to recruit the most dynamic elements of society to their “modernization camp” inside the ruling party.

The president knows that he could not really afford an open conflict with United Russia, and he is working to build his own base of supporters within the party. This, in time, could help him deny Putin his monopoly of control over the largest political party during the elections.

But is Medvedev really preparing to challenge Putin, were the latter to decide to return to the presidency in 2012? Will Medvedev have the political resources, the support base and, most importantly, the guts to challenge the man who brought him to the pinnacle of Russian power? How would such a challenge play out in Russia’s clannish politics? How would the Russian elites react to the need to make a political choice that could be fatal? How would the people respond to open competition between the two principal Russian politicians? How would the West react and respond in such a scenario? Would it back Medvedev or Putin, or stay out of the game altogether?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA:

The structure of the question is quite curious. Given that in 2012, president Medvedev would be an incumbent running for re-election, one could suppose a challenge by Putin, but not the other way around.

The reality is that neither gentleman is currently running for election and it would be frivolity or insanity for any serious politician to declare his or her candidacy so far ahead of the elections. Marginal politicians like the late Harold Stassen in the United States, or some of the leaders of the pocket-size parties of Russia, may declare themselves so early – but such candidacies are not serious.

Opinion poll results obtained two years ahead of an event are meaningless. Some of the polling organizations referenced in the introduction may be following political agendas – biased pollsters who pretend to generate “impartial” results are a commonly used electoral technique.

The periodic mention of a contest between the two leading Russian political figures invokes smiles. Instead of debating the merits of hypothetical scenarios oriented two years into the future (which in politics is equivalent to a lifetime away), some observers are questioning the motives and psychodynamics of the question itself.

In some opinions, the electoral juxtaposition of Medvedev and Putin is a construct dreamt up by the opponents of the two men who themselves have no political traction and no viable candidate. The opponents posit a hypothetical competition between both men – whom they find equally odious – with the hope that a destructive contest will damage both. In brief, a “divide et impera” scenario.

Or perhaps (and more probably) the gossip of a possible contest between presidential candidates Medvedev and Putin in 2012 is simply idle speculation of the kind for which Russians are quite famous. One is reminded of interminable, inconclusive and pointless speculation by Soviet Russians in their kitchens, over tea or more flammable liquids.

There is a very plausible alternative, which the hypothetic electoral scenarios prefer to ignore. One can readily envision a likely outcome where the current governance configuration in Russia is maintained for yet another presidential cycle. This may be the most attractive formula for Russia’s electorate and may garner maximum support.

The perception of both men as being driven by exclusive personal ambition and by lust for a monopoly on power is inaccurate and simplistic. One reason for such an erroneous perception is a lack of understanding of the true nature of executive leadership in any system of governance. Even monarchs do not rule alone. Some form of delegation of authority and of power sharing is inevitable. Therefore, regardless of who is the commander-in-chief in Russia, his or her power will be shared with Russia’s prime minister and other political, cultural and even religious leaders. This is true for every country, at all times – from classical Athens and Rome, through the Middle Ages, and into the modern world. People who have no executive experience do not readily understand this reality of governance, and imagine that one would or could pursue maximum power for themselves, supposing governmental dynamics to be a “zero-sum game.”

For a more refreshing approach we should accept as accurate the often repeated statements by both Medvedev and Putin that they collaborate quite well. We should also note that Russia’s need for governance is so vast that it can satisfy (or overwhelm) even the most power-hungry politician. We have no tangible evidence, no situation or even a gesture, that suggests otherwise.

To the above we should add the axiom that any speculation about political events 24 months in the future is fundamentally not serious political science.

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

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was recently quoted as saying that it was too early to predict his political future – in other words, whether he intends to seek the Russian presidency in 2012. If he chooses not to pursue a return to the presidency, there would be no need for President Dmitry Medvedev to “challenge him.” And the very idea presumes that Putin wants his old job back – don't ask me why he would.

For the moment, the power-sharing arrangement seems to be working to the satisfaction of both individuals. President Medvedev is getting critical experience as head of state, but Putin seems to have veto power over any policy initiatives. In the near term, this is likely to continue, since Medvedev seems unwilling to defy his predecessor on any major issue. This arrangement probably would not survive another economic downturn (or even some major scandals), but just how long it will continue is unpredictable.

There are simply too many variables. The prospects for a healthy economic recovery are uncertain. Even if the Russian economy as a whole bounces back, it is unclear that the fruits of recovery will be enjoyed by a large share of the country's population, rather than only a small percentage. Of course, same can be said about the EU countries and the United States, but at least those countries provide their citizens with a better safety net. It is unclear who will be blamed if there is not a strong recovery in Russia.

Little progress has been made in establishing the rule of law within the Russian judicial system. A recent study conducted by the Russian Supreme Court indicated that of the cases it surveyed, 40 of the decisions contained errors. Was this the result of incompetence or corruption, including the improper exercise of political influence?

Meanwhile, pre-trial detention of non-dangerous suspects continues, despite new legislation providing for bail in the case of economic crime.

The anti-corruption campaign seems stymied, though it is unclear whether this is due to passive resistance in the bureaucratic, legislative, judicial spheres, Putin's unwillingness to tame the personnel working there, or Medvedev’s own lack of will or ability to effectively implement his policies.

And that’s not all. Recent terrorist acts, combined with problems around the preparations for the Sochi Olympics, will also play a role for how 2012 plays out.

Igor Torbakov, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki:

Curiously, the very way in which Frolov frames the discussion appears to reflect the long-standing habit of most Russian pundits to perceive any significant societal change as being the result of the change of personalities at the top of Russia’s “vertical of power.” Not so long ago Russia’s chattering classes were obsessed with the “2008 problem.” But time flies fast, and now the “2012 problem” looms large. Yet over the last decade or so, the nature of Russia’s mildly authoritarian regime – otherwise known as phony or imitation democracy – remains largely unchanged. And there are no grounds to believe that it is going to change significantly in 2012, whatever exotic combinations the present tandem might come up with.

Again, what is important to understand is that the most vital interest of Russia’s rulers is to perpetuate their power, and this means preserving the present political regime. In fact, the post-2008 Kremlin “tandemocracy” is the latest modification of the system of authoritarian and personalist power that proved to be quite useful in the time of the severe financial crisis. Russia’s duumvirs appeared to be quite adept at making good use of what Dmitry Medvedev aptly called the “stylistic differences” between the two leaders: the polite manners and liberal rhetoric of the Russian president is meant to give the regime a more modern and human face, as well as to lure the liberal-minded folk, while Vladimir Putin’s machismo and stern looks seem to appeal more to the traditionalist segments of Russian society. Thus the Kremlin’s “double act” serves to broaden the regime’s political base and preserve the status quo during the turmoil of the global economic downturn.

So why rock the boat? Why would Medvedev take on Putin in 2012? To carry out his “modernization agenda?” But as I’ve argued (including on these pages), any true modernization of Russia presupposes the introduction of competition into domestic politics and economy, the discontinuation of the currently widespread practice of the merger of political power and business interests, and the strict implementation of the rule of law. In practical terms, such reforms will inevitably revitalize Russia’s political sphere, give rise to the true, not fake, political struggle, and ultimately spell the end of the present regime of “tandemocracy,” which rests on stage-managed elections, controlled political succession and the state bureaucracy’s dominance over the economy’s “commanding heights.”

So as far as the “2012 problem” is concerned, I guess it would be more prudent to just believe what the main protagonists keep saying about it – namely, that they will amicably sort it out among themselves and make an agreement. In his recent interview with AFP, Putin reiterated this position.

This “amicable agreement,” however, is unlikely to move Russia’s polity closer to modern mature democracy or, for that matter, to facilitate the modernization of Russia’s economy. As for pundits, they could do worse than start talking less about personalities and more about the fundamental principles underlying political regimes.
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