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Russian president Dmitri Medvedev's sacking of Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, and the spate of interviews given by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in September have been thoroughly analyzed by Russian and foreign experts and journalists in search of clues to the million-dollar question of Russian politics: will Putin run for president in 2012, or will he let his protégé Medvedev serve another term? There has been no "smoking gun," but several strong hints have emerged. First, Putin has articulated, openly and proudly, what amounts to a strategic agenda. Second, this agenda negates virtually every key element of Medvedev's "modernization" and liberalization, including the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations. Third, with the policy disjoint this wide, it is almost certain that Putin will run, while Medvedev will face a stark dilemma: be a Khrushchev or a Gorbachev?
Key points in this Outlook:
- Vladimir Putin's recent interviews unmistakably show that he at best tolerates Dmitri Medvedev's "modernization" campaign.
- Putin will likely run for president in 2012. The policy differences between Putin and Medvedev are too great for the former to allow the latter to remain in office.
- Medvedev can either pursue piecemeal reforms like Nikita Khrushchev, or he can lift censorship of Russian television and hold reasonably free elections like Mikhail Gorbachev.
Revived by the opacity of Russian neo-authoritarianism, Kremlinology is again the tool of choice of Russian and Western experts. Of late, it has received a mighty boost from Medvedev's sacking of the powerful mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and especially from Putin's interviews and statements since the end of August--the most he has given or made, over a comparable period of time, in his eleven years in public office.
Sifting through this output in search of unmistakable clues to Putin's intentions in 2012 has proved a waste of time. Putin must have gotten straight As (5s) in the course on disinformation at the Red Banner Yuri Andropov KBG Institute (now the Academy of Foreign Intelligence). He will keep everyone guessing until the very last moment--dropping a red herring here, a hint there, and enjoying it thoroughly.
Yet, several important themes have emerged. First, Putin definitively answered the most important question: if back in the Kremlin, what would he do? The prime minister was not the least bit coy about his policies--if not in his anodyne and vague pontifications at the dinners of mostly Western experts at the Valdai Club, then in his cheerfully sarcastic, "in-your-face" interviews with the Russian media. He articulated what amounts to a strategic agenda, one thoroughly and unmistakably reactionary in the classic sense of the word: resistant to change and advocating the return--lock, stock, and barrel--to the pre-2009 state of affairs. Furthermore, Putin's agenda contradicts both the spirit and the letter of Medvedev's tentative modernization-cum-liberalization, including the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations. It is as if Putin had a list of Medvedev's key talking points in front of him and was intent on rebutting them, one by one.
The State of the Economy
In what can be considered the rhetorical platform of his presidency, Medvedev described Russia's economy as "chronically backward," "primitive," dependent on "raw materials," and ignoring "the needs of the people." Labor productivity is meager, and most businesses are averse to inventing or manufacturing and, instead, trade in commodities and imported goods. Russia's leading independent economists, including Putin's own former personal adviser, Andrei Illarionov, agree that the sharp downturn in the country's economy began before the global economic crisis decimated the price of oil and that Russia's domestic crisis was the reason its GDP plunged 7.9 percent in 2009--the deepest drop of all major national economies.
According to Putin, however, the country has been "progressing steadily" and has "no big problems." Of course, the crisis, which had "no connection" to the Russian economy and came from outside the country, "held back" Russia's development, but only "a bit." Overall, the national economy is "on the right track."
Out of 133 countries surveyed last year, Russia was rated 121st in the protection of property rights (behind not only Indonesia, which was 81st, but also Kazakhstan, at 103rd) and 116th in the independence of courts by the World Economic Forum. In the 2009 Transparency International report, Russia was near the bottom of the Corruption Perceptions Index: 154th out of 178 countries--below Nepal, Cameroon, Ecuador, and Sierra Leone, and on par with Kenya.
Graft, blackmail, and shakedowns of entrepreneurs have become a pillar of Putinism and one of the main obstacles to economic progress. Moscow businessmen report that kickbacks (otkaty) paid to city authorities have increased from 10 percent of profits in 1990 to 60-70 percent today. In September 2010, Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky described the situation as "out-of-control executive authorities" who have made racketeering a "commercial enterprise." The racket is protected by the government's iron grip on national television and abetted by intimidated or bought courts. With authorities at every level using the fear of "pretrial detention" (which can last years) to extort entrepreneurs, perhaps Medvedev's most significant policy initiative thus far has been a law mandating bail for those accused of "economic crimes."
Medvedev has deplored the "chronic" corruption "eating away" at Russia and made fighting against it the rhetorical leitmotif of his presidency. Putin has conceded that corruption exists in Russia, adding that it is not solely Russia's "misfortune." A year ago, Putin averred, "Spain put in jail all the local authorities in the south." (Spain is ranked 32nd on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.) The struggle against corruption in Russia "could, perhaps, be more effective," Putin said, but "this question requires painstaking research."
The Muslim North Caucasus is barely governable, mired in poverty and unemployment, and swept up in relentless fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Nary a day passes, especially in the Republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, without an official--a policeman, judge, prosecutor, or local functionary--being killed by terrorist attacks. Last summer, the president of Ingushetia barely survived a suicide bombing. In June 2010, undoubtedly on Kremlin orders, the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to approve a resolution on the North Caucasus, which, among other things, condemned outrageous human rights abuses in Chechnya and sharply criticized the "disgraceful" personality cult of Putin's handpicked president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
In his "state of Russia" speech to a joint session of the Federal Assembly in November 2009, Medvedev called the situation in the North Caucasus "our country's most serious domestic political problem." According to Putin, however, the violence in the North Caucasus is "not really terrorism in the proper sense of the word," but rather a struggle between "clans" for the "redistribution of property." And Kadyrov is not only a "decisive warrior," but also "a very good economic leader." In short, Chechnya's president is a "great guy" (molodets).
"Nonfreedom" and Billy Clubs
Medvedev said that the Russian people are all but "defenseless" against the "arbitrariness" of authorities, and they suffer from "nonfreedom" (nesvoboda) and a "disdain" for the law. He bemoaned the "paternalistic sentiments" of an "archaic society," in which the "bigwigs think and decide for everyone," and called for a "political culture of free and critically thinking people." He gave the first interview of his presidency to the only remaining national opposition newspaper, Novaya gazeta.
Asked about the prodemocracy opposition, Putin at first professed no knowledge of the regular assaults by Moscow riot police on demonstrators. Then he heartily endorsed the attacks: if the stubborn prodemocracy demonstrators chose to ignore the ban on demonstrations in downtown Moscow's Triumphal'naya Square, Putin said, they deserved to be "bashed about the head with billy clubs." Besides, Putin continued, these demonstrators "pour red paint" on themselves to compromise the authorities by feigning wounds. (In June 2010, after witnessing a police assault on demonstrators in Moscow, the Duma-elected human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, protested in a letter to Medvedev. Lukin pointed out that it was unconstitutional for authorities to "approve" or "forbid" a peaceful demonstration, as long as the organizers notified the authorities.)
"Reset" and Munich
What about the "reset" with the United States to which Medvedev pledged himself in three summits with President Barack Obama? "Hmmm," Putin answered. He "would like" to believe in the reset, but, look, isn't Georgia "being rearmed" by the United States, and wasn't it similar military assistance that resulted in Georgian "aggression" against South Ossetia two years ago? And isn't the United States still going to deploy antimissile shields in Europe? So, "where is the 'reset'?" Putin had "a feeling" that Obama was "sincere," but he did not know "what [Obama] can and cannot do." He wanted to wait and see whether the U.S. president "succeeds or does not succeed."
Putin has had no regrets about his Cold War-like speech in Munich in February 2007. As he explained to a Russian reporter, the West (NATO) had "conned" Russia "in the most primitive way" by expanding NATO eastward. He also castigated the United States for the arrest of a Russian citizen in Africa. The Russian was charged with "illegal transportation of narcotics" and transported secretly to the United States. "Well, isn't that an outrage?!" Thus, Putin concluded, "What I said in Munich continues to be relevant today."
So, no mistakes then, no regrets? a Russian interviewer asked. "Nyet!" Putin answered. There is no need to change anything: Putinism has worked brilliantly and will continue to work just as well. Even veteran Russian reporter Andrei Kolesnikov of Kommersant, well used to Putin's braggadocio, admitted to being "stunned."
"Putin 2012" and "Medvedev 2011"
Emerging from Putin's recent public statements is a vision of Russia that is virtually antithetical to the ideas and aspirations Medvedev has articulated. The chasm between Putin's and Medvedev's designs for Russia's future might hold the answer to the "Putin 2012" question: the policy disjoint is too wide for Putin to wait until the end of Medvedev's second term in 2018 to reverse what he clearly sees as, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, dangerous deviations from Putinism.
While Putin's political agenda appears fairly certain, Medvedev's faces an uphill battle and stark options. The difficulty for Medvedev is compounded by the fact that, while the differences in the two leaders' approaches to the current problems are indeed quite pronounced, Medvedev's modernization "thaw" thus far has produced only sporadic changes in the facts on the ground, which continue to be dominated and shaped by Putinism.
To be sure, the tone with which the Kremlin communicates with society at large is milder, and the propaganda drumbeat about Russia being threatened by implacable enemies on the outside and the "fifth column" (the prodemocracy opposition) on the inside seems to have been muted. Several anticorruption measures have been instituted, in particular the aforementioned law that mandates bail for those charged with "economic crimes" and aims to deprive the bureaucracy of a key blackmail tool against entrepreneurs. In addition, Moscow has exhibited less overt hostility toward its Eastern European neighbors and NATO, concluded a strategic arms-control treaty with the United States, moved closer to the U.S. position on sanctions against Iran, canceled the sale of surface-to-air missiles to Tehran, and increased its cooperation on Afghanistan. Also, Russia's apparently imminent entrance into the World Trade Organization is a clear reversal of its position from as late as the summer of 2009.
Yet Russian troops are still concentrated on Georgian borders, government censorship of television is just as suffocating, and opposition parties and movements are just as incapable of registering for, much less participating in, local and national elections. Citizens still cannot elect provincial governors and, in some regions, mayors. Despite Medvedev's railing against the "legal nihilism" and occasional punishments of corrupt officials, graft shows no sign of lessening, and entrepreneurs continue to be terrified of bureaucratic "guidance" and extortion.
Was Medvedev's sacking of Luzhkov indeed a "game changer" as some Russian and Western analysts believe? To be sure, the Moscow mayor had tried to "out-Putin" Putin by strangling the last vestiges of self-rule and democracy in the Russian capital--blatantly rigging elections and unleashing grotesque police brutality against prodemocracy demonstrators. He is also rumored to be exceptionally corrupt, even by Russian standards. Yet the impact of his dismissal will extend beyond the intramural Kremlin games only if followed up by an immediate repeal of the unconstitutional political regime in Moscow and by a thorough and unflinching investigation into the maze of corruption--no matter how high into the Kremlin hierarchy it might lead. Meanwhile, although he has managed to get rid of Luzhkov, Medvedev has failed to replace him with his own man; by all accounts, Putin's ex-chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, will continue to be loyal to his former boss and, like Luzhkov, "deliver" Moscow's powerful political machine to Putin. This is hardly a sign of Medvedev's political ascendance within what is known in Russia as the "power tandem" between the president and the prime minister.
If he is sincere in his desire to modernize Russia, Medvedev faces the usual choices of a liberalizing leader of an authoritarian regime. He can continue to engage in occasional dismissals and piecemeal reforms--which will be vigorously resisted and effectively frustrated by the reactionary and corrupt nomenklatura bureaucracy--without touching the essence of Putinism. This route would likely result in a display of impotence and perhaps even an ignominious "retirement" in 2012. This is the Khrushchev option--named after the sincere but haphazard former Stalin henchman, who attempted an immensely benign de-Stalinization, yet was mortally afraid of fundamentally reforming the system and was "retired" by the apparat in a palace coup in 1964.
Or Russia's president could try to merge liberalization "from above" with the pent-up call for change from below by reaching out to the prodemocracy opposition and Russia's new middle-class protesters, who turn out to call for more economic and political freedom and demand Putin's resignation. This, of course, was the route followed by Mikhail Gorbachev, who--having tried "administrative" reforms and finding himself hamstrung by the apparat that "elected" him--dealt the system a mortal blow by abolishing censorship in 1987 and holding semifree elections in 1989 and 1990. In the run-up to the 2011 Duma elections, Medvedev should do just that: ensure unconstrained public debate, first and foremost on national television, and unimpeded registration of opposition parties and movements.
There is, of course, a third option: that of Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled with the blessing of the increasingly corrupt and hidebound nomenklatura for eighteen years, as the country sank deeper and deeper in the economic, social, and moral bog of stagnation under the burden of increasingly lethal but ignored problems. But the Brezhnev option is not available to Medvedev: it is already taken by someone else. "It is so important to us, Vladimir Vladimirovich, that the present regime be preserved!" the (now former) first deputy mayor of Moscow, Yuri Roslyak, pleaded with Putin this past September. If Putin retakes the Kremlin in 2012 and serves two six-year terms, by 2024 he will have ruled Russia for twenty years--two years longer than Brezhnev, and very likely with the same result
Leon Aron (email@example.com) is a resident scholar and the director of Russian studies at AEI.
The author is grateful to AEI research assistant Kevin Rothrock and senior editor Laura Drinkwine for their help in editing and producing this Outlook.
1. Elian Bilevskaya, "Podgorevshiy imidzh vlasti" [A Charred Image of Powers That Be], Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 1, 2010, available in Russian at www.ng.ru/printed/244555 (accessed September 24, 2010).
2. Dmitri Medvedev, "Rossiya, vperyod!" [Russia, Forward!] Kremlin.ru, September 10, 2009, available at http://news.kremlin.ru/news/5413 (accessed July 27, 2010).
4. See, for example, Andrei Illarionov, "Fighting Financial Fires with Blini," Moscow Times, October 3, 2008, available at www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9690 (accessed October 5, 2010); and Evgeny Gontmakher, "Nash domoroshchennyi krizis lish usililsya mirovym" [The World Crisis Has Only Worsened Our Homegrown One], Delovaya pressa, March 4, 2009, available in Russian at http://pda.nr2.ru/chel/226530.html (accessed November 8, 2010).
5. CIA World Factbook, "World Economy Overview," available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html (accessed November 9, 2010).
6. Vladimir Putin, "Dayu vam chestnoe partiynoe slovo" [I Give You My Honest Party Word], Kommersant, August 30, 2010, available in Russian at www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1495411 (accessed September 5, 2010).
7. Vladimir Putin, "Khorosho, chto menya boyatsya. Ya zhe ne nagradnoy otdel" [It Is Good That They Are Afraid of Me. I Am Not a Department of Awards], Komsomolskaya pravda, August 30, 2010, available in Russian at http://kp.ru/print/article/24548.5/726146 (accessed September 5, 2010).
8. Vladimir Putin, "Dayu vam chestnoe partiynoe slovo" [I Give You My Honest Party Word].
9. World Economic Forum, "The Global Competitiveness Report 2009-2010," available at www.weforum.org/pdf/GCR09/GCR20092010fullreport.pdf (accessed July 22, 2010).
10. Transparency International, "Corruption Perceptions Index 2010," available at www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2010/results (accessed November 8, 2010).
11. Ilya Barabanov, "Draka imeninnikov" [The Birthday Boys' Fight], The New Times (Moscow), September 20, 2010.
12. Alexandra Samarina, "Putin prepodal Valdayskomu klubu osnovy rossiyskoy politiki" [Putin Has Taught the Valdai Club the Basics of Russian Politics], Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 8, 2010, available in Russian at www.ng.ru/politics/2010-09-08/1_putin.html (accessed November 8, 2010).
13. For more on this law, see Leon Aron, "Dmitri Medvedev's Modernization Thaw: Objectives, Actions, and Policy Tests," AEI Russian Outlook (Summer 2010), available at www.aei.org/outlook/100987.
14. Dmitri Medvedev, "Rossiya, vperyod!" [Russia, Forward!]
15. Vladimir Putin, "Khorosho, chto menya boyatsya. Ya zhe ne nagradnoy otdel" [It Is Good That They Are Afraid of Me. I Am Not a Department of Awards].
18. Paul Goble, "North Caucasus Militants Every Day Inflict ‘Five to Six' Casualties among MVD Troops," Eurasia Review, October 11, 2010, available at www.eurasiareview.com/201010119024/north-caucasus-militants-every-day-inflict-five-to-six-casualties-among-mvd-troops.html (accessed October 12, 2010).
19. Dmitri Medvedev, "Poslanie Federal'nomu Sobraniyu Rossiyskoy Federatsii" [Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation], Kremlin.ru, November 12, 2009, available at www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/5979 (accessed October 3, 2010).
21. Vladimir Putin, "Khorosho, chto menya boyatsya. Ya zhe ne nagradnoy otdel" [It Is Good That They Are Afraid of Me. I Am Not a Department of Awards].
24. Dmitri Medvedev, "Rossiya, vperyod!" [Russia, Forward!]
25. Dmitri Medvedev, "Poslanie Federal'nomu Sobraniyu Rossiyskoy Federatsii" [Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation].
26. Dmitri Medvedev, "Rossiya, vperyod!" [Russia, Forward!]
27. Vladimir Putin, "Dayu vam chestnoe partiynoe slovo" [I Give You My Honest Party Word].
29. Elina Bilevskaya, "Lukin prizyvaet prezidenta k gibkosti" [Lukin Is Calling on the President to Be Flexible], Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 25, 2010, available in Russian at www.ng.ru/politics/2010-06-25/2_lukin.html (accessed November 8, 2010).
30. Vladimir Putin, "Dayu vam chestnoe partiynoe slovo" [I Give You My Honest Party Word].
33. "Russian Pilot Arrested in U.S. on Drug Trafficking Charges," RIA Novosti, July 20, 2010, available in Russian at http://en.beta.rian.ru/russia/20100720/159880918.html (accessed October 14, 2010).
35. Vladimir Putin, "Dayu vam chestnoe partiynoe slovo" [I Give You My Honest Party Word].
37. For details, see Leon Aron, "Dmitri Medvedev's Modernization Thaw: Objectives, Actions, and Policy Tests."
38. Andrei Kolesnikov, "Dostizheniya raznorodnogo khozyastva" [The Achievements of a Diversified Economy], Kommersant, September 18, 2010, available in Russian at www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1506785&print=true (accessed September 24, 2010).