Medvedev Completed the Development of Putin’s System
Some periods in Russian history are judged not politically but romantically, as a personal victory or defeat, such as the rule of Feodor I Ioannovich, the son of Ivan the Terrible, or the period of Emperor Paul I. The latest example is the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who refused to run for reelection, which is reason to consider his rule from a psychological, rather than political angle. Medvedev’s dangerous loyalty to his friend, Vladimir Putin, baffles historians. The actions of these two leaders and the connection between them defy simple political explanations. Yet we must try to find them.
1. Medvedev’s presidency is widely considered a failure. His dramatic announcement not to run for reelection, made at the end of his term, complicates and distorts any objective assessment. Now that his personal catastrophe is over, while the long-term consequences are unclear, the main thing is that by swapping places with Putin, Medvedev has remained on the political stage as a leading player. The game is not over yet. He has not lost the first round, even if he has not won it, while the rules of the second round are unclear.
Views have changed in just four years. It has become clear that the ideas Medvedev advanced at the beginning of his presidency were in line with Putin’s project and its animating principles. It was President Putin who chose Medvedev as his successor in 2007, fearing that his old cronies-turned-billionaires had become too powerful and hence unreliable. Putin chose Medvedev as a new and younger leader, a more welcoming face for foreign investors and, certainly, a reliable friend. Last year showed that Putin was not wrong on the final count.
2. This is how the tandem was created. The Kremlin team thought it was a good form of political continuity, with the departing Putin as the leading force and his friend and successor Medvedev protecting his policy from undesirable change. They swapped places before the crisis, when the financial basis of their power looked solid enough. The deal made behind the scenes was a low price for stability, especially since all important decisions in Russia are made in such deals, many of them involuntary for one of the sides.
An implicit condition of the tandem’s survival was public approval of the deal and its terms, which no one knew exactly. It became clear by 2011 that the price was too high, and the deal no longer looked voluntary. It clearly bound the hands of Medvedev, who showed puzzling indecision on some issues. The tandem undermined Medvedev’s initiatives because people thought they were inspired by Putin, which was not always true. A clear example of this was the successful war with Georgia in August 2008, which was Medvedev’s call.
3. In general, the first year of Medvedev’s presidency was highly successful. Even the global financial crisis played into his hands by preventing Washington from interfering in the war with Georgia. The cabinet of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Financial Minister Alexei Kudrin had a large part to play in the matter, because it actually wielded presidential powers. On the other hand, Medvedev has coined a few catchy slogans, such as “Freedom is better than non-freedom” and “Stop rattling business.” But there were also problems. Medvedev had a rather narrow view of economic modernization, which he put in the spotlight, and which only part of the government supported. In particular, he did not see a connection between the growing crime rate and de-modernization.
During Medvedev’s rule, the level of the authorities’ latent and disseminated violence continued to grow at the lowest level and above. No social group (excluding expat billionaires) felt secure, although Medvedev sometimes acted as an ombudsman/defender and a few times even intervened in the “normal” course of affairs, saving people from absurd violence and threats. On the other hand, he did not dare intervene in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
4. On the whole, the construction of Putin’s system of power was completed in 2008 to 2012. The project very well could have failed without Medvedev, who has turned Putin’s methods into a form of exercising power. But Medvedev’s success made Putin and the shadow beneficiaries of his system wonder if he plans to maintain Putin’s system without Putin.
Under President Medvedev, the community of shadow beneficiaries grew tenfold without becoming a legal class of large owners. This prize-giving caste, which formed around the Kremlin and the government, distributes posts and controls communications and inter-budgetary relations. It is because of that community that Medvedev has not set the goal of legalizing private property. Property has not emerged from the shadow, which has undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. The idea of a new privatization campaign, which Medvedev advanced at the end of his presidency, seems to be an attempt to benefit the prize-giving caste. But it would be a strange bonus considering that this caste has pushed President Medvedev off the main road.
5. Putin has been accused of monarchical ambitions and it is true that he liked playing the one-and-only leader. Some people in the Kremlin feared that the tandem would create diarchy, a traditional boogeyman in Russia, but instead the tandem has further sealed the monarchical style of government. It is significant that society has accepted the tandem: for four years, Medvedev and Putin shared the high rating of trust in government, and the results of closed opinion polls remained almost unchanged. Medvedev is not totally honest when he talks about Putin’s greater authority: it was the tandem as the collective tsar that the people trusted. But that political monarchy fell on September 24, 2011, when the public learned that Medvedev and Putin had agreed to swap places years before. It took Putin six months of personal struggle to regain people’s support, which is now relative and must be paid for.
6. Political reform was an additional ace up the authorities’ sleeve. It had been discussed in the Kremlin as a Plan B to be saved for a difficult situation. Medvedev seemingly wanted but did not dare initiate the reform for fear of disrupting the balance in the tandem. That fear was carefully nurtured by a group of special Kremlin tutors. The fear that relations with Putin within the duumvirate could worsen ultimately became the main cause of the paralysis of Medvedev’s policy.
Protest rallies in December 2011 forced him to launch the reform sooner than he planned. Medvedev signed orders simplifying the formation of political parties and approving the election of governors, which helped him regain his self-esteem, which had been undermined in September 2011. The initial result does not look impressive, but it will definitely have consequences in the long run, some of them unexpected. When political reforms are implemented in an evidently curtailed form, this irritates both opponents and supporters and spurs the growth of radical sentiments, including in unexpected places. For example, it was almost impossible to predict the sudden fierce politicization of the Patriarchy, which is deepening the social divide.
At the same time, Putin badly needs Medvedev because the duumvirate is based on the doctrine of the Power Team, according to which the key decisions are taken by a small group of people that cannot be increased. That system was weakened by the decline of Putin's charisma, and its stability now depends on the creation of an open sector of politics outside the sphere of the Power Team’s interests. The system should incorporate the forms of competitiveness that will not affect the decision-making center. Dmitry Medvedev, with his “open government” and “electronic democracy” programs, is a valuable palliative to the demands for de-monopolizing power.
7. Opinions may differ, but President Medvedev has clearly left President Putin a better country politically and economically than the one he inherited from Putin in 2008. The current international situation is favorable to Russia, which is not at the center of any major global conflict. Its borders have been settled and there are no major outside threats (excluding the possibility of war in Iran).
To sum up, the overall results of Medvedev’s rule are mixed and any assessment of his presidency will depend on developments in the immediate future, which could be so turbulent as to make Medvedev’s “irresolute presidency” look like an era of mercy and tolerance.
Gleb Pavlovsky, Head, Effective Politics Foundation; Editor-in-chief and Publisher, Russian Journal and the Pushkin Magazine; President, Russian Institute; Member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation; Professor, National Research University – Higher School of Economics.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.