Vlad Sobell: The Putin-Medvedev Tandem Is A Bad Idea

Dr. Vlad Sobell, of Daiwa Institute of Research (London, UK), is the world’s leading expert on post-Communist transitions in Russia and Eastern Europe.  The following article was posted to Johnson’s Russia List.

The Putin-Medvedev Tandem Is A Bad Idea

Vlad Sobell, Daiwa Institute of Research

Summary:

Although the creation of PutinMedvedev tandem has been welcomed by the markets as the guarantee of stability and continuity, Putin has arguably committed a strategic error.

This paper argues that the best guarantee is the strict adherence to the letter as well as the spirit of the constitution. Since Russia’s constitution does not provide for the concept of the tandem (or “diarchy”), Putin has stretched the law to an unacceptable degree.

Facing an opportunity to finally place Russia’s leadership succession on a fully legal and predictable footing, he has erred by moving in the opposite direction.

One of the immediate consequences is the weakening of the domestic and international authority of his successor, President Medvedev.

Despite these mistakes, we conclude that Russia is an evolving, post-totalitarian democracy. No democracy is perfect and even the most advanced Western democracies fail in ways similar to Putin’s.

Putin has succeeded in further embedding the key pillars of modern democracy, while presiding over a spectacular economic recovery.

Squaring the circle: leadership transition without the transfer of power?


As the dust continues to settle, it has become possible to take stock of Russia’s leadership succession and its long-term ramifications. The honest way to describe its outcome is that while Russia has a new president (Dmitry Medvedev) and prime minister (Vladimir Putin), and while it has seen a comprehensive reshuffle of the entire administration, there has in fact been no change of leadership. Putin has ceased to be president, but supreme power has moved with him to his new post. This has been a theatre featuring a formal rather than real change.

Although some analysts envisage Medvedev eventually becoming the real leader, this is not imminent. Thus far the transition has produced a Putin-Medvedev tandem, or “diarchy”, with the consensus believing that Putin is the dominant partner, set to remain such in the foreseeable future. At present it is unclear if and when Medvedev truly takes up the reins of power.

Indeed, Putin has beefed up the government structure by appointing two first deputy prime ministers and five deputy prime ministers, a kind of Soviet-era Politbureau, enabling him to focus on the big issues and strategy. He has also made moves suggesting that he intends to play a strong role in foreign policy, which according to the constitution clearly falls under the presidential purview. While Putin has taken care to ensure that none of these steps violates the letter of the constitution, they do violate its spirit insofar as the constitution does not provide for the concept of diarchy or tandem.

This outcome has been welcomed by the markets and regime-friendly pundits as a guarantee of continuity and stability. Indeed, the arguments backing such a positive verdict are very powerful: Why needlessly upset an arrangement that has been phenomenally successful, transforming Russia from a post-Soviet basket case into a robustly expanding regional and potentially global power? Why, indeed, not double the formula’s effectiveness by creating the Putin-Medvedev tandem, which allows the hugely popular former president to continue to deploy his talents and experience, with his “apprentice” getting enough time to find his feet? Given that Russia’s governance is for the first time in modern history delivering tangible goods, with the country rapidly making up the lost time, it would seem an act of supreme folly to tinker with its foundations.

Putin has made a serious error


Despite the undoubted strength of this reasoning, one must conclude that the outcome of Russia’s leadership transition so far has been distinctly suboptimal and that former president Putin has possibly committed a serious strategic error. At a minimum, it must be concluded that apart from its obvious benefits, this nominal leadership transition also entails heavy costs. Worse, these costs might in the long run outweigh the benefits.

This sceptical conclusion derives from the tried and tested principle that ultimately the most reliable guarantee of stability and continuity is not the continued presence of a strong leader – however popular and talented he may be – but the strict adherence to both the spirit and letter of the law. Though this abstract, yet very tangible, institution is shaped by self-serving and mortal politicians, it enjoys the decisive advantage of being impartial and immortal. In a democracy such as Russia, law is the product of wide, expert deliberations and informed consensus.

By retaining the supreme authority, Putin has opted for a route in which stability remains associated primarily with his person. But since his person – as well as the person of his fellow rider – is mortal, and since a single person (or even a tandem) cannot match the collective wisdom enshrined in the de-personalised law, Putin has hitched Russia’s fate to an incomparably less substantial entity.

Putin had – and still has! – another option: to promptly depart from the political scene (or at least ensure that he no longer is the locus of supreme authority) and thus transform his successor into genuine supreme leader, unambiguously acknowledged as such. While this might have fuelled more risks and potential instability in the short run, it would have placed Russia’s political system on an entirely new and fundamentally more stable footing.

Putin had a historic opportunity to finally endow Russia’s constitution-based polity with a robust life of its own, immune to personal fortunes and whims of present and future leaders. Unfortunately, he has flunked this opportunity, succumbing like all his predecessors to the myth that without their continued presence chaos would ensue. He has thus failed to crown his indisputable achievements by setting a strong precedent, which would have boosted the integrity and stability of Russia’s governance. (And which would have achieved it much more effectively than his continued presence). Instead, the precedent he has set is troubling and possibly damaging: in future, the Russian electorate cannot be sure who, or what, they will be voting for.

Putin’s failure means that Russia unfortunately remains under the spell of its historical and cultural curse: even its modern, post-totalitarian leaders apparently seem incapable of surrendering power.

(The situation in this respect is, of course, made more complicated by the fact that most Russians actually want Putin to remain in power and would consider his withdrawal as absurd. However, Putin’s popularity will never be transferred to his successor, unless he takes decisive steps to that effect).

The circle cannot be squared: Putin strategy has been misconceived


A closer look at arguments in favour of the leadership tandem suggests that they are flawed. By staying on as informal locus of supreme authority, Putin has merely postponed, rather than resolved, the long-standing problem of how to safely accomplish the change of leader. Thus he has primed something of an instability “time-bomb”, which will be more difficult to “defuse” the longer he remains in this role.

One could argue that the ideal way might be to proceed by stealth. Almost imperceptibly, as President Medvedev continues to settle in his post, he will gain more and more authority until Russia one day wakes up and notices that real power unmistakably lies in his hands (with Medvedev being able, for example, to publicly overrule Putin). Indeed, this may well be the prime minister’s plan. (Some analysts have noted that Putin may be preparing in time to relinquish his post to the First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov).

Unfortunately, this slow motion succession too would fail to yield a transparent and orderly handover of power. A vital ingredient of the above noted impersonal system based on nothing but law is, precisely, that the law not only is obeyed, but also that it is seen by everyone being obeyed. To satisfy this condition, the supreme leader must cease to act as such at a precisely determined time, with the torch visibly passing into the hands of his successor. There must be no ambiguity or cosy inter-personal agreements on when actually the transfer of power takes place.

Moreover, the transfer of power must be carried out in a way clearly demonstrating that the successor’s authority stems from his democratic mandate – not from it being bestowed upon him by his predecessor. This, after all, is the reason why Russia held its presidential elections. Again, the emergence of the tandem has created a situation in which Dmitry Medvedev’s political prestige is demonstrably at the discretion of his “fellow rider” rather conferred on him by the electorate.

Insofar as Putin has failed to adhere to these exacting principles, he has implicitly undermined his self-declared mission to place Russia on a law-based footing. We suggest below that by doing so he has also sent exactly the wrong signal in the context of the intensifying struggle against Russia’s arguably most serious problem – corruption and the persistent weakness of the judiciary’s integrity. 

Does Medvedev really need “protection”?


Finally, some commentators have also justified the creation of the tandem by the alleged necessity for Medvedev to be protected by Putin, lest the former, erroneously depicted as Kremlin novice, falls victim to clan intrigue. While this sounds superficially convincing, a closer scrutiny of this line of reasoning shows that it is also false. By compromising his authority as the supreme leader, Putin has actually weakened President Medvedev’s position. Medvedev’s most effective protection (assuming that he needs it) should stem from an unambiguous acknowledgment of him as the holder of real supreme power and from demonstrating that he owes this position to his democratic mandate, rather than a mandate granted to him by his predecessor.

In this respect too, Putin had an opportunity to part with the Russian tradition of the new leader being perceived as vulnerable to court intrigue. It is doubtful that it was really necessary to follow the tradition, instead of daring to open a new leaf of truly democratic politics. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which, for example, a group of siloviki (members of the security services hostile to the “liberal” Medvedev) might stage a coup against an elected president, supported by a hugely popular Putin.

Some immediate costs of Putin’s error


Having shaken off the shackles of central planning, Russia in the 1990s plunged into deep and all-pervasive criminality and corruption. Under Putin corruption continued to thrive (in proportion with the rising prosperity), to some extent oiling the wheels of an economy flush with natural resources-generated cash. However, as the economy and Russia’s democracy continue to mature, this state of affairs is growing increasingly intolerable.

There have been numerous signs that Putin is determined to finally tackle the scourge. Indeed, his selection of Dmitry Medvedev (who by his background is uniquely suited for the task) as his presidential successor suggests that this will be the regime’s motto in the coming decade.

Unfortunately, it must be concluded that the manner of the leadership transition, which leaves everyone guessing where the real power and authority reside, has delivered poor foundations for the undertaking. The murky manner in which the tandem has emerged and supplanted the single leader for whom the electorate voted, cannot possibly serve as a credible platform for the onslaught on corruption. Furthermore, should Medvedev come to be perceived mainly as Putin’s anti-corruption tsar, rather than the president of Russia, his prestige in this respect – as in many others – would be compromised. 

A brief look at external affairs leads us to the same conclusion. The arrival of a double-headed eagle, rather than of a president with unambiguous authority cannot but weaken Russia’s external position. During his debut visit to Western Europe (Germany) in early June President Medvedev made several potentially significant foreign policy proposals, for example on the rebuilding of Europe’s security architecture. He has called for no less than Europe’s emancipation from the US hegemony. Should his proposals be implemented, Europe would make significant steps towards a durable peace and stability, finally fully overcoming the vestiges of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, (and to everyone’s loss), such initiatives cannot even begin to be taken seriously when Medvedev’s European counterparts are not sure whether the Russian president holds real power and authority. No-one in Europe (and the United States) will take seriously a leader who is perceived as someone else’s puppet. Equally, since Russia’s leadership transition will be perceived as less than transparent, the persistent distrust of Russia in Europe will not be overcome.

Indeed, it cannot go unnoticed that Medvedev’s European debut was preceded by Putin’s visit to France, where he was treated virtually as the head of state. Surely, should Putin wish to really burnish the international prestige of his successor, he would have found ways of postponing his trip.

Alternative interpretations are unsatisfactory


It is possible to develop alternative, generally positive and certainly credible, interpretations of the leadership transition process to date. An influential, if not the official, school of thought sees Putin’s move as enhancing democracy and stability by boosting institutional pluralism. The idea is that far from undermining the president, the strengthening of the government’s authority and effectiveness by making Putin its head has created an additional pillar of executive power, specialising in tasks that cannot be adequately tackled by the president. Furthermore, Putin’s move can be interpreted as the strengthening of the weight of the parliament, with the former president acting as the leader of the dominant United Russia party.

Thus the Kremlin-connected director of Effective Policy Foundation, Gleb Pavlovsky, has argued that “two power centres mean democracy” and that “there is no democracy with only one power centre”. Pavlovsky has gone on to suggest that Russia is experiencing the arrival of “normal and effective” democracy, in which “neither branch of power can dictate its will on another and each branch of power acts within its own limits”. Pavlovsky has implied that, insofar as the constitution does not explicitly stipulate that the government is subordinated to the Kremlin, the previous situation (in which the government was de facto a branch of the presidential administration), was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Pavlovsky has conceded that according to the constitution there can be only one head of state.

Putin himself certainly sees the situation in the same light. For example, in an interview with Le Monde during his May visit to Paris he identified the main benefit of his move to the new posts in his ability to boost the development of a multi-party political system as well as in the strengthening of the role of the State Duma. As to the distribution of supreme power, there is, according to Putin, no ambiguity: “The president without question has the final word. And the president today is Mr Medvedev”.

While this reasoning which sees the need for the widening of the system as well as the development of party politics, is persuasive (as such widening certainly is needed), this interpretation fails to make sufficient room for the possibility that the president and prime minister clash. Putin has gone to considerable length to ensure that his successor is as close an ally as can realistically be expected. But we would be leaving the realm of real politics and entering utopia were we to assume that conflict between both partners cannot emerge.

The official interpretation seems to be harking back (certainly inadvertently) to Soviet Marxist delusions, which had it that the socialist order had banished the fundamental conflict of interests (while, of course, deadly dog fights were permanently taking place under the carpet). An arrangement resting on the assumption of perpetual leadership harmony, rather than the possibility, however remote, of irreconcilable conflict, cannot be sound.

Such thinking is out of place in a democracy, which is comfortable with the notion of conflict. Indeed, one of the key functions of democratic politics is to ensure that conflict, assumed to be inevitable, is resolved peacefully and that each controversial decision is made by those elected to take them in full understanding of the lines of authority and responsibility.

Thus the true test of Russia’s democracy’s health would materialise not through fraternal harmony, but if and when President Medvedev overrules Prime Minister Putin on an issue of vital importance, or even if he relieves him of his office. Should such an eventuality never arise (which is the most likely scenario), Putin’s claim that “the president has the final word”, and hence the robustness of democracy, would never come to be seriously tested. (We do not intend to imply that instability and conflict are desirable; merely to demonstrate that the tandem, and hence Russia’s present-day collective leadership rests on somewhat idealistic foundations).

Incidentally, some analysts have in this context pointed to the parliament’s (and hence Putin’s) ability to impeach the president, if two thirds of the Duma vote in favour. Such scenarios are purely academic as they are based on the absurd notion that Putin would remove Medvedev (and presumably become president himself) the moment he sensed his “puppet” was getting out of control. This assumes that Putin has almost supernatural powers of persuasion and/or intimidation and that, indeed, he truly cannot let go of the reins.

A setback, not a terminal blow to democracy


Ever since Vladimir Putin was installed as president in 2000, the analytical mainstream beavered away on the theory that he had embarked on the restoration of authoritarianism. Currently, the mode of Russia’s presidential succession – that is, the election and inauguration of the new president, without demonstrable transfer of real power – is widely regarded as the conclusive validation of this interpretation.

While undoubtedly providing some ammunition to proponents of this way of thinking, Putin’s strategic errors highlighted in this paper do not add up to a conclusive proof that Putin is building an authoritarian system; in fact, they do not pass as convincing evidence supporting that misconceived theory at all.

What the present analysis shows is that the desire to ensure a completely risk-free leadership transition has actually yielded unwelcome, potentially risky consequences. Far from being a power-hungry autocrat, Putin is merely failing to understand that too much security and continuity can be counter-productive. In his zeal he cannot see that an organism never exposed to infection actually grows more vulnerable, as its immune system never comes to be challenged.

Concepts such as “democracy” or “autocracy” can be weasel words, frequently deployed to discredit, rather than explain and educate. While being very popular, Putin’s regime has legions of domestic and foreign enemies, primarily because it is placing priority on Russia’s own interests. This has frequently caused it to step on the toes of powerful domestic and foreign players with their own ideas on how Russia should run its affairs and especially how its resources should be utilised. Labelling Putin an autocrat has been a cheap but very effective way of damaging him. The interpretations of Putin’s rule as authoritarian restoration thus tend to be no more than propaganda in the service of such interests, rather than objective works of political science.

In medieval times, one’s opponents were discredited (or worse) by being marked as heretics, while the righteous – and their selfish interests – always had God on their side. But the basis for such judgements inevitably were flimsy in the extreme. We have not progressed very far: an “autocrat” such as Putin is a modern version of Devil-worshiper. Once branded as such (preferably with an added clause – “a former KGB agent”), a serious examination of Russia’s politics is no longer necessary.

Since no democracy can be perfect, it is easy to identify similar weaknesses and setbacks in other democratic countries. Perhaps the most telling contemporary example is the United Kingdom. This cradle of modern democracy has never had an elected head of state, while its current head of government, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has inherited the title from his predecessor, Tony Blair, on the basis (as rumour has it) of an informal, over-the-dinner agreement between them when still in opposition. (One wonders where Putin and Medvedev have got their idea of the tandem from!) Hiding behind the UK’s unwritten constitution (which considers the leader’s legitimacy as being derived from his party’s continued parliamentary majority), PM Brown has not dared to test his leadership in parliamentary elections, fearing (rightly) that he might be defeated.

Thus, while adhering to the letter of the constitution, its spirit surely is being violated. Should we apply to the UK the strict criteria which are routinely applied to Russia, we would have to conclude that the UK is running a highly authoritarian autocracy.

Another topical example. The European leaders are just at this very moment busy inventing ways to ignore the verdict of the Irish electorate, which has rejected the Lisbon Treaty (a rehashed version of the Constitutional Treaty, already twice rejected in the French and Dutch referendums in 2005). When it comes to vital interests of the Union’s stability, the democratic Eurocrats simply will not take “no” for an answer.

As regards the global democratic leader, the United States, it would be possible to identify similar flaws: for example the controversial elections of recent years or the system’s tendency to produce presidential dynasties, rendering it less open to outsiders.

Russia is not a modern authoritarian autocracy (whatever that is supposed to be). The most appropriate characterisation might see it as an evolving, post-totalitarian democracy, which unsurprisingly continues to suffer from the baggage of its difficult history.

At the same time, it is necessary to point out that Putin’s regime has managed to put into place most of the pillars of democracy and, above all, the thriving, rapidly growing economy. The former president himself has long argued that Russia cannot have a genuine democracy under the conditions of widespread poverty and has (rightly) placed priority on economic development, sometimes at the expense of democratic purity. The problems identified in this paper most likely stem from this understanding of Russia’s predicament, not from his alleged anti-democratic sentiment.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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Vlad Sobell: The Putin-Medvedev Tandem Is A Bad Idea

Dr. Vlad Sobell, of Daiwa Institute of Research (London, UK), is the world’s leading expert on post-Communist transitions in Russia and Eastern Europe.  The following article was posted to Johnson’s Russia List.

The Putin-Medvedev Tandem Is A Bad Idea

Vlad Sobell, Daiwa Institute of Research

Summary:

Although the creation of PutinMedvedev tandem has been welcomed by the markets as the guarantee of stability and continuity, Putin has arguably committed a strategic error.

This paper argues that the best guarantee is the strict adherence to the letter as well as the spirit of the constitution. Since Russia’s constitution does not provide for the concept of the tandem (or “diarchy”), Putin has stretched the law to an unacceptable degree.

Facing an opportunity to finally place Russia’s leadership succession on a fully legal and predictable footing, he has erred by moving in the opposite direction.

One of the immediate consequences is the weakening of the domestic and international authority of his successor, President Medvedev.

Despite these mistakes, we conclude that Russia is an evolving, post-totalitarian democracy. No democracy is perfect and even the most advanced Western democracies fail in ways similar to Putin’s.

Putin has succeeded in further embedding the key pillars of modern democracy, while presiding over a spectacular economic recovery.

Squaring the circle: leadership transition without the transfer of power?


As the dust continues to settle, it has become possible to take stock of Russia’s leadership succession and its long-term ramifications. The honest way to describe its outcome is that while Russia has a new president (Dmitry Medvedev) and prime minister (Vladimir Putin), and while it has seen a comprehensive reshuffle of the entire administration, there has in fact been no change of leadership. Putin has ceased to be president, but supreme power has moved with him to his new post. This has been a theatre featuring a formal rather than real change.

Although some analysts envisage Medvedev eventually becoming the real leader, this is not imminent. Thus far the transition has produced a Putin-Medvedev tandem, or “diarchy”, with the consensus believing that Putin is the dominant partner, set to remain such in the foreseeable future. At present it is unclear if and when Medvedev truly takes up the reins of power.

Indeed, Putin has beefed up the government structure by appointing two first deputy prime ministers and five deputy prime ministers, a kind of Soviet-era Politbureau, enabling him to focus on the big issues and strategy. He has also made moves suggesting that he intends to play a strong role in foreign policy, which according to the constitution clearly falls under the presidential purview. While Putin has taken care to ensure that none of these steps violates the letter of the constitution, they do violate its spirit insofar as the constitution does not provide for the concept of diarchy or tandem.

This outcome has been welcomed by the markets and regime-friendly pundits as a guarantee of continuity and stability. Indeed, the arguments backing such a positive verdict are very powerful: Why needlessly upset an arrangement that has been phenomenally successful, transforming Russia from a post-Soviet basket case into a robustly expanding regional and potentially global power? Why, indeed, not double the formula’s effectiveness by creating the Putin-Medvedev tandem, which allows the hugely popular former president to continue to deploy his talents and experience, with his “apprentice” getting enough time to find his feet? Given that Russia’s governance is for the first time in modern history delivering tangible goods, with the country rapidly making up the lost time, it would seem an act of supreme folly to tinker with its foundations.

Putin has made a serious error


Despite the undoubted strength of this reasoning, one must conclude that the outcome of Russia’s leadership transition so far has been distinctly suboptimal and that former president Putin has possibly committed a serious strategic error. At a minimum, it must be concluded that apart from its obvious benefits, this nominal leadership transition also entails heavy costs. Worse, these costs might in the long run outweigh the benefits.

This sceptical conclusion derives from the tried and tested principle that ultimately the most reliable guarantee of stability and continuity is not the continued presence of a strong leader – however popular and talented he may be – but the strict adherence to both the spirit and letter of the law. Though this abstract, yet very tangible, institution is shaped by self-serving and mortal politicians, it enjoys the decisive advantage of being impartial and immortal. In a democracy such as Russia, law is the product of wide, expert deliberations and informed consensus.

By retaining the supreme authority, Putin has opted for a route in which stability remains associated primarily with his person. But since his person – as well as the person of his fellow rider – is mortal, and since a single person (or even a tandem) cannot match the collective wisdom enshrined in the de-personalised law, Putin has hitched Russia’s fate to an incomparably less substantial entity.

Putin had – and still has! – another option: to promptly depart from the political scene (or at least ensure that he no longer is the locus of supreme authority) and thus transform his successor into genuine supreme leader, unambiguously acknowledged as such. While this might have fuelled more risks and potential instability in the short run, it would have placed Russia’s political system on an entirely new and fundamentally more stable footing.

Putin had a historic opportunity to finally endow Russia’s constitution-based polity with a robust life of its own, immune to personal fortunes and whims of present and future leaders. Unfortunately, he has flunked this opportunity, succumbing like all his predecessors to the myth that without their continued presence chaos would ensue. He has thus failed to crown his indisputable achievements by setting a strong precedent, which would have boosted the integrity and stability of Russia’s governance. (And which would have achieved it much more effectively than his continued presence). Instead, the precedent he has set is troubling and possibly damaging: in future, the Russian electorate cannot be sure who, or what, they will be voting for.

Putin’s failure means that Russia unfortunately remains under the spell of its historical and cultural curse: even its modern, post-totalitarian leaders apparently seem incapable of surrendering power.

(The situation in this respect is, of course, made more complicated by the fact that most Russians actually want Putin to remain in power and would consider his withdrawal as absurd. However, Putin’s popularity will never be transferred to his successor, unless he takes decisive steps to that effect).

The circle cannot be squared: Putin strategy has been misconceived


A closer look at arguments in favour of the leadership tandem suggests that they are flawed. By staying on as informal locus of supreme authority, Putin has merely postponed, rather than resolved, the long-standing problem of how to safely accomplish the change of leader. Thus he has primed something of an instability “time-bomb”, which will be more difficult to “defuse” the longer he remains in this role.

One could argue that the ideal way might be to proceed by stealth. Almost imperceptibly, as President Medvedev continues to settle in his post, he will gain more and more authority until Russia one day wakes up and notices that real power unmistakably lies in his hands (with Medvedev being able, for example, to publicly overrule Putin). Indeed, this may well be the prime minister’s plan. (Some analysts have noted that Putin may be preparing in time to relinquish his post to the First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov).

Unfortunately, this slow motion succession too would fail to yield a transparent and orderly handover of power. A vital ingredient of the above noted impersonal system based on nothing but law is, precisely, that the law not only is obeyed, but also that it is seen by everyone being obeyed. To satisfy this condition, the supreme leader must cease to act as such at a precisely determined time, with the torch visibly passing into the hands of his successor. There must be no ambiguity or cosy inter-personal agreements on when actually the transfer of power takes place.

Moreover, the transfer of power must be carried out in a way clearly demonstrating that the successor’s authority stems from his democratic mandate – not from it being bestowed upon him by his predecessor. This, after all, is the reason why Russia held its presidential elections. Again, the emergence of the tandem has created a situation in which Dmitry Medvedev’s political prestige is demonstrably at the discretion of his “fellow rider” rather conferred on him by the electorate.

Insofar as Putin has failed to adhere to these exacting principles, he has implicitly undermined his self-declared mission to place Russia on a law-based footing. We suggest below that by doing so he has also sent exactly the wrong signal in the context of the intensifying struggle against Russia’s arguably most serious problem – corruption and the persistent weakness of the judiciary’s integrity. 

Does Medvedev really need “protection”?


Finally, some commentators have also justified the creation of the tandem by the alleged necessity for Medvedev to be protected by Putin, lest the former, erroneously depicted as Kremlin novice, falls victim to clan intrigue. While this sounds superficially convincing, a closer scrutiny of this line of reasoning shows that it is also false. By compromising his authority as the supreme leader, Putin has actually weakened President Medvedev’s position. Medvedev’s most effective protection (assuming that he needs it) should stem from an unambiguous acknowledgment of him as the holder of real supreme power and from demonstrating that he owes this position to his democratic mandate, rather than a mandate granted to him by his predecessor.

In this respect too, Putin had an opportunity to part with the Russian tradition of the new leader being perceived as vulnerable to court intrigue. It is doubtful that it was really necessary to follow the tradition, instead of daring to open a new leaf of truly democratic politics. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which, for example, a group of siloviki (members of the security services hostile to the “liberal” Medvedev) might stage a coup against an elected president, supported by a hugely popular Putin.

Some immediate costs of Putin’s error


Having shaken off the shackles of central planning, Russia in the 1990s plunged into deep and all-pervasive criminality and corruption. Under Putin corruption continued to thrive (in proportion with the rising prosperity), to some extent oiling the wheels of an economy flush with natural resources-generated cash. However, as the economy and Russia’s democracy continue to mature, this state of affairs is growing increasingly intolerable.

There have been numerous signs that Putin is determined to finally tackle the scourge. Indeed, his selection of Dmitry Medvedev (who by his background is uniquely suited for the task) as his presidential successor suggests that this will be the regime’s motto in the coming decade.

Unfortunately, it must be concluded that the manner of the leadership transition, which leaves everyone guessing where the real power and authority reside, has delivered poor foundations for the undertaking. The murky manner in which the tandem has emerged and supplanted the single leader for whom the electorate voted, cannot possibly serve as a credible platform for the onslaught on corruption. Furthermore, should Medvedev come to be perceived mainly as Putin’s anti-corruption tsar, rather than the president of Russia, his prestige in this respect – as in many others – would be compromised. 

A brief look at external affairs leads us to the same conclusion. The arrival of a double-headed eagle, rather than of a president with unambiguous authority cannot but weaken Russia’s external position. During his debut visit to Western Europe (Germany) in early June President Medvedev made several potentially significant foreign policy proposals, for example on the rebuilding of Europe’s security architecture. He has called for no less than Europe’s emancipation from the US hegemony. Should his proposals be implemented, Europe would make significant steps towards a durable peace and stability, finally fully overcoming the vestiges of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, (and to everyone’s loss), such initiatives cannot even begin to be taken seriously when Medvedev’s European counterparts are not sure whether the Russian president holds real power and authority. No-one in Europe (and the United States) will take seriously a leader who is perceived as someone else’s puppet. Equally, since Russia’s leadership transition will be perceived as less than transparent, the persistent distrust of Russia in Europe will not be overcome.

Indeed, it cannot go unnoticed that Medvedev’s European debut was preceded by Putin’s visit to France, where he was treated virtually as the head of state. Surely, should Putin wish to really burnish the international prestige of his successor, he would have found ways of postponing his trip.

Alternative interpretations are unsatisfactory


It is possible to develop alternative, generally positive and certainly credible, interpretations of the leadership transition process to date. An influential, if not the official, school of thought sees Putin’s move as enhancing democracy and stability by boosting institutional pluralism. The idea is that far from undermining the president, the strengthening of the government’s authority and effectiveness by making Putin its head has created an additional pillar of executive power, specialising in tasks that cannot be adequately tackled by the president. Furthermore, Putin’s move can be interpreted as the strengthening of the weight of the parliament, with the former president acting as the leader of the dominant United Russia party.

Thus the Kremlin-connected director of Effective Policy Foundation, Gleb Pavlovsky, has argued that “two power centres mean democracy” and that “there is no democracy with only one power centre”. Pavlovsky has gone on to suggest that Russia is experiencing the arrival of “normal and effective” democracy, in which “neither branch of power can dictate its will on another and each branch of power acts within its own limits”. Pavlovsky has implied that, insofar as the constitution does not explicitly stipulate that the government is subordinated to the Kremlin, the previous situation (in which the government was de facto a branch of the presidential administration), was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Pavlovsky has conceded that according to the constitution there can be only one head of state.

Putin himself certainly sees the situation in the same light. For example, in an interview with Le Monde during his May visit to Paris he identified the main benefit of his move to the new posts in his ability to boost the development of a multi-party political system as well as in the strengthening of the role of the State Duma. As to the distribution of supreme power, there is, according to Putin, no ambiguity: “The president without question has the final word. And the president today is Mr Medvedev”.

While this reasoning which sees the need for the widening of the system as well as the development of party politics, is persuasive (as such widening certainly is needed), this interpretation fails to make sufficient room for the possibility that the president and prime minister clash. Putin has gone to considerable length to ensure that his successor is as close an ally as can realistically be expected. But we would be leaving the realm of real politics and entering utopia were we to assume that conflict between both partners cannot emerge.

The official interpretation seems to be harking back (certainly inadvertently) to Soviet Marxist delusions, which had it that the socialist order had banished the fundamental conflict of interests (while, of course, deadly dog fights were permanently taking place under the carpet). An arrangement resting on the assumption of perpetual leadership harmony, rather than the possibility, however remote, of irreconcilable conflict, cannot be sound.

Such thinking is out of place in a democracy, which is comfortable with the notion of conflict. Indeed, one of the key functions of democratic politics is to ensure that conflict, assumed to be inevitable, is resolved peacefully and that each controversial decision is made by those elected to take them in full understanding of the lines of authority and responsibility.

Thus the true test of Russia’s democracy’s health would materialise not through fraternal harmony, but if and when President Medvedev overrules Prime Minister Putin on an issue of vital importance, or even if he relieves him of his office. Should such an eventuality never arise (which is the most likely scenario), Putin’s claim that “the president has the final word”, and hence the robustness of democracy, would never come to be seriously tested. (We do not intend to imply that instability and conflict are desirable; merely to demonstrate that the tandem, and hence Russia’s present-day collective leadership rests on somewhat idealistic foundations).

Incidentally, some analysts have in this context pointed to the parliament’s (and hence Putin’s) ability to impeach the president, if two thirds of the Duma vote in favour. Such scenarios are purely academic as they are based on the absurd notion that Putin would remove Medvedev (and presumably become president himself) the moment he sensed his “puppet” was getting out of control. This assumes that Putin has almost supernatural powers of persuasion and/or intimidation and that, indeed, he truly cannot let go of the reins.

A setback, not a terminal blow to democracy


Ever since Vladimir Putin was installed as president in 2000, the analytical mainstream beavered away on the theory that he had embarked on the restoration of authoritarianism. Currently, the mode of Russia’s presidential succession – that is, the election and inauguration of the new president, without demonstrable transfer of real power – is widely regarded as the conclusive validation of this interpretation.

While undoubtedly providing some ammunition to proponents of this way of thinking, Putin’s strategic errors highlighted in this paper do not add up to a conclusive proof that Putin is building an authoritarian system; in fact, they do not pass as convincing evidence supporting that misconceived theory at all.

What the present analysis shows is that the desire to ensure a completely risk-free leadership transition has actually yielded unwelcome, potentially risky consequences. Far from being a power-hungry autocrat, Putin is merely failing to understand that too much security and continuity can be counter-productive. In his zeal he cannot see that an organism never exposed to infection actually grows more vulnerable, as its immune system never comes to be challenged.

Concepts such as “democracy” or “autocracy” can be weasel words, frequently deployed to discredit, rather than explain and educate. While being very popular, Putin’s regime has legions of domestic and foreign enemies, primarily because it is placing priority on Russia’s own interests. This has frequently caused it to step on the toes of powerful domestic and foreign players with their own ideas on how Russia should run its affairs and especially how its resources should be utilised. Labelling Putin an autocrat has been a cheap but very effective way of damaging him. The interpretations of Putin’s rule as authoritarian restoration thus tend to be no more than propaganda in the service of such interests, rather than objective works of political science.

In medieval times, one’s opponents were discredited (or worse) by being marked as heretics, while the righteous – and their selfish interests – always had God on their side. But the basis for such judgements inevitably were flimsy in the extreme. We have not progressed very far: an “autocrat” such as Putin is a modern version of Devil-worshiper. Once branded as such (preferably with an added clause – “a former KGB agent”), a serious examination of Russia’s politics is no longer necessary.

Since no democracy can be perfect, it is easy to identify similar weaknesses and setbacks in other democratic countries. Perhaps the most telling contemporary example is the United Kingdom. This cradle of modern democracy has never had an elected head of state, while its current head of government, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has inherited the title from his predecessor, Tony Blair, on the basis (as rumour has it) of an informal, over-the-dinner agreement between them when still in opposition. (One wonders where Putin and Medvedev have got their idea of the tandem from!) Hiding behind the UK’s unwritten constitution (which considers the leader’s legitimacy as being derived from his party’s continued parliamentary majority), PM Brown has not dared to test his leadership in parliamentary elections, fearing (rightly) that he might be defeated.

Thus, while adhering to the letter of the constitution, its spirit surely is being violated. Should we apply to the UK the strict criteria which are routinely applied to Russia, we would have to conclude that the UK is running a highly authoritarian autocracy.

Another topical example. The European leaders are just at this very moment busy inventing ways to ignore the verdict of the Irish electorate, which has rejected the Lisbon Treaty (a rehashed version of the Constitutional Treaty, already twice rejected in the French and Dutch referendums in 2005). When it comes to vital interests of the Union’s stability, the democratic Eurocrats simply will not take “no” for an answer.

As regards the global democratic leader, the United States, it would be possible to identify similar flaws: for example the controversial elections of recent years or the system’s tendency to produce presidential dynasties, rendering it less open to outsiders.

Russia is not a modern authoritarian autocracy (whatever that is supposed to be). The most appropriate characterisation might see it as an evolving, post-totalitarian democracy, which unsurprisingly continues to suffer from the baggage of its difficult history.

At the same time, it is necessary to point out that Putin’s regime has managed to put into place most of the pillars of democracy and, above all, the thriving, rapidly growing economy. The former president himself has long argued that Russia cannot have a genuine democracy under the conditions of widespread poverty and has (rightly) placed priority on economic development, sometimes at the expense of democratic purity. The problems identified in this paper most likely stem from this understanding of Russia’s predicament, not from his alleged anti-democratic sentiment.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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