The Kremlin Castling

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

The moment of Decision 2012 has finally arrived. Last Saturday, addressing the cast of a costly show called the XII Congress of the United Russia party, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he was not going to run for re-election. Instead, Medvedev proposed that United Russia nominated its leader and the current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a candidate for the next year’s presidential election, something that would ensure Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Returning the favor, Putin promised to make Medvedev the head of his next cabinet should United Russia win the upcoming December Duma elections, as widely expected.

Some analysts in Russia, where the game of chess is a popular pastime, dubbed the announced arrangement “castling.” Those really familiar with the game would hardly agree: castling involves two chess pieces, the king and a rook, simply exchanging their positions on the chessboard. In contrast, the proposed leadership “swap” will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Kremlin: in chess terms, it will bestow on Putin the importance of the king combined with the power of the queen, whereas Medvedev’s role will be reduced to that of the bishop, a piece that is often sacrificed for tactical reasons.

It is possible to argue that Putin’s return to the presidency would resolve the most important controversy in Russian politics. Putin is, and has been for years, the most popular Russian politician, as evidenced by multiple polls. In 2000-2008, his popularity matched his position as president, the highest state position according to the Constitution. However, in 2008, this “harmony” was distorted as Putin moved to the post of prime minister, formally subordinate to the president. The “tandem” between Putin and Medvedev was created to manage this distortion, with some original hopes expressed that the new structure would introduce a modicum of competition between two executive offices, the presidential administration and the Cabinet. But the arrangement proved to be too confusing for Russian elites. So, no matter what Putin’s critics will say – and, to be sure, there is going to be a tsunami of condemnations of his “authoritarian instincts,” both within Russia and abroad – Putin is returning to the position commensurate with his real status as a “leader of the nation,” a position that he would have easily won in any free and fair election.

Medvedev’s proposal to nominate Putin as United Russia’s presidential candidate was greeted with a standing ovation by the congress delegates, to which Medvedev observed that their reaction gave him the right to provide no further justification of Putin’s nomination. As far as Putin is concerned, Medvedev is right; but he is wrong if he believes that he owes no explanation about himself. Medvedev has just earned a dubious honor of becoming the first single-term president of Russia. And it begs the obvious question of: why? Medvedev showed strength and resolve during the August 2008 war in South Ossetia; he successfully navigated Russia through the stormy waters of the world economic crisis; he initiated a reform, however timid, of Russia’s broken judicial system; he improved the country’s image abroad; finally, he sharpened public consciousness with his modernization rhetoric. By all accounts, Medvedev’s first term in office was not a failure. Doesn’t Medvedev feel that he must explain – to his supporters, to the elites, to Russian voters — why he chose not to seek re-election and why, in his opinion, Putin will be better as the next Russian president?

Actually, Medvedev did provide an explanation of sorts. He told the delegates that the Decision 2012 was actually made a few years ago, at the time when Medvedev and Putin were forming their tandem (a “comrade union,” as Medvedev put it), and he was therefore just delivering on what was agreed upon between the two back then.

There is a problem with this explanation. Over the past couple of years, when asked about his plans, Medvedev has repeatedly expressed his interest in the second term and kept saying that the final decision would be made based on the situation in the country and the results of his own work. With the decision made in fact back in 2007, has Medvedev been not deliberately deceiving his compatriots?

And here is another problem. Russia is a democracy, however imperfect, a country where political decisions are supposed to follow public discussions and consultations among the elites. Isn’t Medvedev afraid that a two-people “tandem” might be too narrow a base to make such decisions? Does he really believe that the democratic institutions in Russia can be strengthened by the introduction of such an unconstitutional entity as “comrade union?”

In recent months, there has been a pressure on Medvedev to announce his re-election bid and to use the time before the March presidential election to mobilize the electorate around his modernization agenda. Medvedev’s Saturday announcement not only shattered high hopes that some in Russia have had for him — it has essentially transformed Medvedev into a lame-duck president a good half-year before the official end of his term. While Russians are readying to watch the Putin gambit, Medvedev’s game is precipitously turning into unwinnable endspiel.

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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6 Responses to The Kremlin Castling

  1. A bad decision I think. Putin, perhaps the best leader that Russia has ever had, has succumbed to the temptation that he is indispensable. If the system he has built only works with him at the top, then it doesn’t work.
    The question that remains is whether he is, as he evidently thinks he is, the Ataturk or Lee Kuan Yew of Russia or merely the Turkmenbashi of Russia.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Patrick,
    In Putin’s defense (of sorts), there is no tradition for Russian rulers to build an “institutional” system; every system was build by and for a single individual. Tzars might be an exception: there was an element of “institution.”
    The question that remains for me is whether this was his own decision — or it was bound on him by his gang. Another question is whether he really believes that he can stay in power indefinitely — as many people in the “power bubble” would assume — or he smells rat, but has no other choice, at least for the moment.
    Will be interesting to listen to his responses at the upcoming Valdai meeting.

  3. Hi Eugene,
    A well thought out article which provokes further thought.
    Of possible interest, I respectfully bring into play several other commentaries, with some follow-up to them and other views, including what you so eloquently wrote.
    Some interesting exchanges at these links that highlight the differences of opinion on the subject:
    Two contrasting articles:
    I don’t think this is quite the negative move as viewed by a good number.
    On your comment about this decision being known privately between “Putvedev”, keep in mind how a private decision is often kept confidential for the purpose of reserving the right to change that decision at a later date. Granted, that the way this private understanding was released appears to have awkwardness – part of the issue pertaining to Russia’s image, relative to better PR.
    Many enterprises benefit from the same management team unlike some other business situations with constant changes in personnel. On the other hand, some will say that government shouldn’t be so equated with how businesses are run. That view notes how the countries with the highest standards of living typically see changes at the top every 4-10 years. Then again, Russia isn’t yet at the level of those countries.
    Countering the Russia isn’t “European” but “Eurasian” bit, reference can be made to Asian countries (notably Japan and South Korea) with relatively frequent changes at the helm. Then again, their post-WW II political and standard of living experiences have been different than Russia’s.
    IMO, it’s often simplistic to say that people get the government they deserve. Look at how many Americans typically vote or not vote holding their noses. Thru no fault of their own, people the world over don’t have such great control.
    For example, it’s certainly not our fault that some comparatively so-so sources get propped unlike others in a not so democratically run mass media, whether in Russia, the US and other countries. Some high level media people are quite ironic when they talk of “stagnation.” Just look at how many of them remain at the top.
    It has been noted that although still the most popular Russian politician, Putin’s popularity has nevertheless declined. That decline is indicative of the overall global situation. Obama could very well get reelected on account of no challenges to him in the Dem Party and the Repubs battling each other in a way that doesn’t promote much confidence for their main candidate.
    All things considered, I second your notion on democracy vis-à-vis Russia.

  4. Received some off record flack for linking the Chronicles article.
    Interesting when considering what is and isn’t considered worthy by some.
    For example, I don’t find an article starting off with a corny joke, followed by fluff and a closing note of winning a bottle of liquor in a bet to be particularly informative.
    Not into sucking up to establishment biases.

  5. Eugene says:

    Thanks for the links, very thoughtful and refreshing.
    I don’t buy Putin-Medvedev’s explanation that the decision in its current form was made in 2007. Sure, there were some “framework” and “points of mutual understandings.” But there were also conditions, conditional circumstances, milestones, and such. Some people said that parts of Putin’s introductory notes at the congress were handwritten — meaning that certain aspects of the final decision were made in the very last minutes.
    Well, this is history now. My major problem with the whole story is different. For as long as two most popular politicians in the country, Putin and Medvedev, discuss between themselves who’s going to run for presidency, Russia still can claim being a democracy. But they must explain their thought process and the reasons for the decision to others. If, in contrast, they choose to stick to an explanation that is essentially a lie, a see a problem. Meaning that Russia is not a democracy. And what is it then? Well, a “comrade union”:)

  6. An imperfect democracy in a process not yet etched in stone.
    I can envisage an establishment political cartoon of a pro-wrestling setting, where Medvedev is in the ring as he tags Putin to enter, with two beaten individuals on the floor of the ring representing…
    Presstitues can do well spinning such a line, with the regime in Moscow wining and dining some of them, in an attempt to appear open and seek a changed line.

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