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Analysis & Opinion
01.04.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Can The Split In The Tandem Be Dealt With?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vlad Ivanenko, Patrick Armstrong, Alexandre Strokanov, Vladimir Belaeff

With Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev publicly sparring over the UN resolution on Libya, and the Russian elites agonizing over an emerging rift in the tandem, an ominous question has begun to cloud Russia’s political scene: can the split in the tandem be smoothed over? Or could it drag the country into a situation reminiscent of 1991?

Of course, we cannot be certain of the state of play between the two Russian leaders. It could well be that the recent spat over Libya is nothing more than a carefully choreographed attempt to pander to different domestic and international audiences, designed to maximize Russia’s political gains from the controversial decision to allow the UN Security Council to authorize military force against Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But it is not hard to notice that such spats are becoming increasingly frequent and confrontational, as the Russian presidential elections loom ever closer and the two leaders are faced with deciding which one of them will run for president in 2012.

Putin has engaged in needless provocations since last summer, red-flagging the limits on Medvedev’s power and testing his readiness to push back. His criticism of Medvedev’s decision to “let the UN resolution on Libya pass” was inappropriate, undermining Russia’s position abroad. Were Medvedev to let Putin’s statement stand, he would have immediately become a lame duck at home and abroad.

Putin, however, was probably right in terms of the substance of what he said, emphasizing that the UN resolution allowed a foreign intervention against a government in a sovereign country that was putting down an armed rebellion - not entirely unlike what Russia did in Chechnya, twice.

Medvedev, for his part, has allowed a self-promoting claque of “advisors” to cast him and his potential second term as a repudiation of Putin and his system of government. Medvedev is ill-served by the ridiculous writings of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), which keeps releasing unsolicited reports with only one message: fire Putin and bring Russia back to the merry 1990s.

The liberal camp around Medvedev is prodding him to run against Putin at all costs, in order to dismantle Putin’s system during Medvedev’s second term. This camp seems to be betting on a growing sense of weariness with Putin both among the elites and the public at large. They say that there exists a public demand for “change we can believe in.”

This raises the question of how Putin should react. He cannot allow a replay of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin tug-of-war that destroyed the country. He might be forced to come back and run for president against his will to safeguard his system of power.

How the split in the tandem can be handled is an open question. There is potential for open rivalry and a split in elite loyalties, resulting in government paralysis. But Medvedev’s camp is basically a small group of advisors and friendly businessmen with no broad public movement behind his agenda were it to become separated from Putin’s. Putin remains the dominant player, still enjoying greater public trust and with political instincts more attuned to broader public sentiments. He also has the full support of the security agencies and leading Russian businessmen.
Still, the question remains – how would Russia handle a split in the tandem? Would it result in major upheaval, not unlike what we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Were Putin to decide he had to return to safeguard his legacy, would that lead to public outcry or would it be met with approval?

Would people go out into the streets demanding that Medvedev run for president against Putin? Could a war of the elites like the one witnessed in the late 1990s reignite if Putin and Medvedev parted ways? Could that result in parallel structures of power, as happened during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin feud in 1989 and 1991? Or is the balance of power so uneven in Putin’s favor that it eliminates such a risk?

Would this balance shift in Medvedev’s favor were he to leave Putin’s shadow and openly challenge the “National Leader”? How would that affect Russia’s political parties and their loyalties? Would splitting the tandem end Medvedev’s presidency before it has had the chance to succeed?

Vlad Ivanenko, PhD economics, Ottawa:

The situation in modern Russia is as unpredictable as it was in the Arab world a few months ago, when what had seemed to be long-term stability was turned upside down in a short space of time. However, two factors will definitely play a role in the way events unfold prior to the Russian presidential election in 2012.

Firstly, the emergence of the middle class and its increasing eagerness to test the limits of the status quo is becoming a force to reckon with. I remember talking to proponents of “democracy promotion” in Russia in 2006. At that time I said that it would be more practical to direct their efforts into nurturing movements aimed against local bureaucratic arbitrariness and corruption instead of trying to draw attention to “human rights,” which remains a poorly understood concept in this country. My argument was that as the average voter gets richer, they pay more attention to basic inconveniences like having to use potholed roads, encounter everyday insolence on the part of officials, or deal with petty lawlessness in the street. The latest civic actions against traffic violations committed by top officials or the Khodorkovsky court scandal are cases in point.

Secondly, I find that since the end of 2007, Prime Minister Putin’s behavior has evolved from being that of a man with certain principles to mere opportunism. In this respect president Medvedev may realize better than his tutor does that maintaining the status quo is not an option in the long run. In this interpretation, it is more a lack of vision on the part of Putin rather than Medvedev’s willingness to break the tandem that is causing tension. But how far will Putin allow Medvedev to assert his principles as they start to encroach upon the interests of his powerbase is an open question.
In the end, Putin may decide to fight against the “rogue elements,” that is, against the section of the middle class that includes people such as blogger Alexei Navalny. If he does this, he will likely have the upper hand, like Libyan leader Gaddafi had, before the western intervention, simply for the reason that he has more resources at his disposal. Would it be a good or bad thing for Russians to live under stability a la Putin (the power vertical, lack of social mobility, and national dependence on crude oil export revenues) for the next 6 years? My feeling is that the answer is marginally in the affirmative.

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada:

The first thing that we have to ask ourselves is whether Medvedev’s comment about the inadmissibility of using the word “crusade” was actually aimed at Putin. When Medvedev (in Moscow) made his formal statement, was he aware that Putin (in the Republic of Udmurtia) had given his “personal opinion” four hours earlier? We don’t know.
What many commentators don’t seem to realize is that the word “crusaders” is commonly used by jihadists to describe the West and Gaddafi is now using it too. So was it a coincidence or a direct rebuke? In any case Putin (in Slovenia) has denied any split saying: “We have a president in Russia who directs foreign policy and there cannot be a split.” And (in Serbia) he said it again.

What this episode shows is that Putin and Medvedev have a difference of opinion on the Libya affair. Putin, probably remembering all the times he has been burned by the West, is skeptical; Medvedev is more accepting. The second thing that it shows is that the naive assumption that Medvedev is Putin’s puppet is – well – naive.

Nevertheless, this incident has set off the usual speculation that the two are in some sort of struggle for the next election. Putin could have easily changed the article in the Constitution and could have been re-elected President. Why would he go through the elaborate rigmarole of putting up a puppet so he could get back into the presidency when he could, so easily, never have left office? Anyone who so speculates should be obliged, by law, to explain, before he opines why Putin wants to be president again and why he is not today.

I maintain that Putin and Medvedev are a team, they are united on the big plan of Russia’s development, and are not likely to be diverted from this purpose by anything as trivial (in the Russian context) as actions in Libya.
Eventually there will be a serious point of disagreement, but this is not it.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

I will begin with an answer to the last question. It is absolutely clear to me that the end of the tandem will mean first and foremost the end of the political career of Dmitry Medvedev who does not have his own base of support in the country.

Medvedev’s chances for success in political life without support from Vladimir Putin could be comparable with the chances of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov winning the presidency - chances which are in my opinion equal to zero. The most hilarious assumption that I read was that people will sincerely go on the streets to support Medvedev against Putin. This is probably the best joke that I have read recently on Russian politics.

Now, about the so-called disagreement between the two Russian leaders. I never read that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized Medvedev’s decision to “let the UN resolution on Libya pass.” Let’s return to the exact words of Vladimir Putin that he said in Votkinsk about the UNSC resolution. I quote it from his official site: “This resolution is flawed and inadequate… By the way, Russia did not vote for this Security Council resolution.” That is it, and where is that what you call “His criticism of Medvedev’s decision … was inappropriate, undermining Russia’s position abroad?” I do not see it at all.

However, it was president Medvedev whose nerves, for whatever reason, gave in when he spoke about the situation in Libya on March 21. Instead of focusing on Russia’s abstention from the vote and distancing himself from the bombing of Libyan cities by coalitional forces, Medvedev decided to defend this truly awful resolution that Russia actually did not support.

This was obviously a serious political error that could be the result of bad advice from his inner circle. At least, I hope that this was so. Otherwise, I will have to consider his lack of understanding of international affairs and his inability to see the real intentions of several western countries in their “crusade” against Libya. And there is nothing wrong in labeling the coalition and now NATO action as a “crusade” because it is quite obvious to any objective observer that stated goals of the operation in Libya do not represent the real objectives of regime change and the establishment of western political control over this Arab country.

I also seriously doubt that the story about disagreement between Putin and Medvedev about Libya has any significance. I hope that in the following weeks, as soon as the now NATO-led campaign in Libya brings even more casualties from civilians in the country (even the Vatican news agency admitted this today), the rhetoric against the resolution will build up and not only in Moscow but in Beijing, New Delhi, Brasilia and other world capitals. President Medvedev will be forced to see better what the West wants in reality and does in Libya and his opinion on many things (including the Resolution UNSC #1973) probably will be changed. Again, I hope that this is so, because if it is not, he is seriously risking his own political future.

It is quite obvious already today that more and more Russian people are skeptical of his ability to lead the country in the future and doubt that it will be good for Russia if he stays for a second, now extended six-year term. At the same time, and mainly due to his age, I believe that the Russian people will not be overly enthusiastic of the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Neither, I think, does he want this himself.

It means that the idea of the third candidate will gain more and more popularity. At this point it is absolutely unclear who could be that third person, but such thoughts are gaining traction more and more and a search for a third or even fourth runner may soon intensify within the Russian political elite. This will also bring intrigue to the election and may eventually open the door for real competition in Russian political life which will only be of good to the country and the people. An election with real choice is what Russia really needs.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc. (USA), San Francisco, CA:

Mountains out of molehills. The malapropism by Vladimir Putin and the immediate rebuke by Dmitry Medvedev was not a pretty sight. Ironically, this spat was about something as peripheral to Russian affairs as the fate of “Che Guevara of North Africa” – a human relic from the days when the Soviet Union literally sacrificed the well-being of its own citizens in the cause of socialist solidarity with very strange people indeed. Russia will be struggling for decades to recover from the damage caused by Soviet support of dictators like Gaddafi.

But was this very public and embarrassing episode an indication of a real “split in the tandem?” There are those who – grasping at straws – would like to think so. Clumsy adolescents, prey to unrequited passion, interpret even the most casual and irrelevant action of their objet as proof of a hoped-for and unlikely favor. They pine, they dream, they toss and turn in their lonely beds. These are the images invoked by speculations about a “split,” using as “evidence” the Libya controversy between Medvedev and Putin.

One must warn all concerned, that a genuine split in Russia’s governing arrangements at this time will benefit not the “neo-liberal” dreamers, but extremists from the left – the communists, and the emerging fascist and crypto fascist groups which showed their teeth already on Manezhnaya square. Russian history in the 20th century has a powerful example, which resonates in the world to this day. A confrontation of the liberal bloc in the Duma with the Tsarist government between November 1916 and March 1917 resulted in the victory of the communists in November of that same year. George Santayana famously pointed out: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

To one’s great amazement, there are bizarre views that favor the political destabilization of Russia. They seem to forget that instability is a danger to world order, in a country armed with nuclear weapons, a still strong revolutionary socialist party that is openly and unconditionally anti-Western, and other geopolitical factors too obvious to mention.
It is true that in Russia there appears a very impractical and even romantic attachment to the faded Valentino-like “socialist sheikh of Tripoli.” It does not seem to be economic – Russia is wealthy and Libya’s business, though not insignificant, is not a “make-or-break” opportunity. It does not appear to be anti-Western (“the enemy of my enemy…”) – Russia’s relationship with the West is steadily improving and one would imagine that the Russian leadership, which has demonstrated repeatedly a healthy pragmatism, is unlikely to lose their heads completely for the charms of an aging dictator of the sands.

It may be that some see parallels between Russia “vs Chechnya” and Tripoli vs Benghazi. However, the Russia vs Chechnya affair is part of those “wild 1990s” for which pine the Russian neo-liberals. It is in the past now. Russia is definitely unlike Gaddafi’s Libya. Russia is an open country, with completely free access to world-wide information, it has political parties, a boisterous opposition, plentiful public opinion, a growing economy, U.S. Radio Liberty broadcasting in Moscow, elections.

One very embarrassing controversy does not define a “split.” If the “tandem” were to really split, the benefits would not flow to the neo-liberals, but to the communists and the fascists, who would not treat the INSORs of Russia kindly. Liberalism had its chance in Russia in the 1990s. For whatever reason, it failed miserably. In politics, such defeats mean decades of pariah status, new ideas and new faces before a next chance becomes available. This is a lesson that yet needs to be learned.
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