The matter of trust

We don’t expect our politicians to explain to us everything, do we?  First of all, despite popular belief to the contrary, governing is a rather complicated trade which often can’t be outlined to a layman in a set of easily digestible messages.  Besides, many political decisions are confidential in nature, so that explaining them runs the risk of revealing state or private secrets.  To compensate for this lack of total clarity, we’re supposed to have trust in our politicians.  It’s trust, not understanding, that largely drives our own decisions when we enter a voting booth.

Yet, there are situations when political decisions must be fully explained.  Lacking this clarity, not only can we not understand past events or predict their trajectory into the future.  Lacking this explanation, we can no longer trust our elected leaders.

The decision by President Dmitry Medvedev not to run for the second presidential term is one of these situations.  Arguably, Medvedev might think that he did provide an explanation.  Actually, even two.  When initially announcing his decision on Sept. 24, at the congress of the United Russia party, he told the crowd that the idea of “swapping” places with Vladimir Putin was conceived a few years ago, at the time when Medvedev and Putin were forming their tandem (a “comrade union” as Medvedev called it).

Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t sound credible: anyone without amnesia remembers Medvedev’s repeated claims that he was seriously interested in a second term.  Last September, the Kremlin’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said in an interview that “[t]he modernization agenda proposed by the head of state is shared by a large section of society and the government.  Therefore achieving these goals goes beyond the term of one presidential mandate.”  Are we to believe that Ms. Timakova was expressing her own opinion when making such a statement?

Then, on Oct. 15, at a meeting with “supporters,” Medvedev argued that his decision to cede the presidency to Putin was driven by higher approval ratings of the latter.  This is a strange argument: Medvedev’s approval ratings have always been – as they are now – lower than Putin’s.  If this didn’t prevent Medvedev from accepting the presidential nomination in 2007 – nor has it been bothering him for the 3.5 years of his presidency – then why would he invoke the popularity issue now?  Besides, Medvedev isn’t a newcomer to politics; he’s certainly cognizant of the fact that approval ratings of any politician in Russia can be easily moved in any direction – in a matter of weeks — by a targeted TV campaign ordered by the Kremlin.

The unpleasant truth that Medvedev doesn’t want to publicly admit is that the decision not to run for a second term – earning him a dubious honor of becoming the first single-term president in Russian history — wasn’t his.  Medvedev was pushed out of the Kremlin by the conservative faction of the Russian political establishment opposed to his modernization agenda.  This assertion may sound too far-fetched given the criticism – often leveled at Medvedev by Russian “liberals” — that he hasn’t been doing nearly enough to reform the country’s economy and notoriously corrupted judicial system.  Yet, this was apparently more than enough for Medvedev’s opponents who are concerned that even a gradual liberalization of the country could undermine their ability to extract hefty rents from Russian soil and Russian businesses.  Igor Yurgens, the leader of a think tank close to Medvedev, made this exact point in an interview with the Kommersant daily:

“If Medvedev’s intentions and actions weren’t in any way threatening the System, we would have been already loudly told that he’s running for a second term.”

The disagreements between Medvedev and Russian hardliners – spreading over the wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues, including the president’s much publicized promises to fight corruption and his attempts at improving Russia’s relations with the West – have obviously been accumulating during the first three years of his presidency.  Yet, two events taking place early this year may be considered a “tipping point.”  On Feb. 21, Medvedev fired the deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Gen. Vyacheslav Ushakov for “shortcomings in his work and violations of ethics code.”  Then, on March 30, at an investment meeting in Magnitogorsk, he demanded to end the practice of appointing members of the Cabinet to the boards of directors of state corporations.

It’s at this point that Medvedev’s opponents seem to have decided that it was time to approach Putin and demand for his intervention.  And it’s at this point that Putin – perhaps, still angry at the president over the public spat on Libya – appears to have decided to terminate the “liberal” (“rocking-the-boat”) experiments of his protégé.

Public signs of this shift were quick to emerge.  On Apr. 14, the top official of the United Russia party, Boris Gryzlov, suggested that the party was going to nominate Putin as its candidate for the 2012 presidential election.  Then, on May 6, Putin announced the creation of the All-Russia People’s front.  Medvedev’s maneuvering space had suddenly shrunk to zero.  He attended the May 18 press conference at Skolkovo – an occasion widely anticipated as the moment to announce his presidential bid – and said…nothing.

In some peculiar sense, what happened in Russia on Sep. 24 can be called a coup-d’état.  Granted, no one was killed or imprisoned.  Yet, by charging Medvedev with leading the United Russia party to the Duma elections, he was essentially stripped of his core constitutional responsibilities.  No single important decision has emerged from his office in the last two months.  U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to visit Russia in December, as initially planned, also demonstrates that the power configuration change taking place in Moscow was not lost on Western leaders.

All these developments pose a number of serious questions about Russia’s future.  The most important, of course, is the future of modernization.  The abrupt end to Medvedev’s presidency reveals the extremely low level of reform acceptance on the part of the conservative faction of Russian elites.  If the “baby-step” changes promoted by Medvedev were still too much for the country’s ruling class, then what kind of reforms at all can take place in Russia in the near future?

Another question, arguably much less important, is the political future of Medvedev himself.  No question, the events of the past few months took a heavy toll on the president.  Yet, Medvedev is young (he’s only 46), in great physical shape, and, as he told his “supporters,” carries a lot of “unrealized potential.”  Besides, he’s smart enough to identify the major reason of his failure: the lack of a political base of his own.  Hence his attempts to preserve the relationship with those who supported him in the past, a poorly defined group of people euphemistically called “supporters.”  However, Medvedev clearly understands that having no team of his own, he must rely on the political base “loaned” to him by Putin.  Only time will tell whether Medvedev will be able to mend fences with United Russia and morph it into an engine advancing his own political agenda.

At the same time, Medvedev has lost no time in reaching out to his rivals to signal that for the sake of good relations, he’s willing to give away certain gains of his “modernization” policies.  This is the only plausible explanation of Medvedev’s recent promise – made at a meeting with the leadership of law enforcement agencies – to further restrict the application of the jury system, something that goes blatantly against his prior drive at the liberalization of Russia’s criminal code.  Medvedev’s recent statement on European missile defense – unusually hawkish for him – was apparently targeting the same audience, rather than the West or Russian voters, as some analysts implied.

Yet, by pretending that nothing has happened and that things are moving in the right direction, Medvedev might be committing a major political mistake, perhaps, even fatal for his career.  Politicians do lose battles, and no one would blame Medvedev for losing his – given the formidable strength of the opponents he was facing.  It’s not Medvedev’s loss; it’s his unwillingness to acknowledge it that may completely erode whatever support he still enjoys in the country.

After all, we don’t really need Medvedev’s explanation.  But then, do we have any reason to trust him?

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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14 Responses to The matter of trust

  1. says:

    “..perhaps, even fatal for his career. ” – Eugene, do you think “perhaps”? 🙂 Russia is not Georgia – the Russian President can be a crook, a drunkard but he can not be a weakling. I don;t believe that Medvedev did not have a chance to fight. Seems more likely that he chose to retreat. because the (his own) reasons why he became a President, were not sufficiently different from the the reasons the other Russian businessmen – pardon, politicians- had climbed to power.
    IMHO – a very interesting post, I enjoyed it
    PS I did not understand the meaning of your “rocking-the-boat” link in the text

  2. Thanks Alex,

    I personally believe that Medvedev is done, especially given the Duma election results. Whether he’s done “effectively now” or still has a chance to be appointed PM, we’ll see. Besides, he IS a young man, and, who knows, may eventually recover. As for his reasons not to fight…Well, as very many other in Russia, he has something to lose: money, perks, etc. He’s got family after all.

    Sorry for this misleading link. At a number of occasions, Putin was trashing the “liberals” for their irresponsible — “rocking the boat,” as he put it — “experiments.” I tried to find more direct quote, but the only recent place where I could find the line was in this interview with the Chinese TV.


      • Alex,

        I have to say that I’m confused. On the one hand, we have an “official forecast” by the Levada Center on 12/5:

        It gave United Russia 50.8%.

        We also have results of exit polls composed by FOM and VTSIOM:

        They gave UR respectively 45.5% and 48.5%. Thus, Levada and VTSIOM give UR pretty much the same result as announced today by the Central Election Commission: 49.3%.

        At the same time, I see a lot of supposedly “real-life” results giving UR ridiculously low numbers. I don’t understand this. If there were indeed mass falsifications of the results, then what are we to do with the Levada and VTSIOM data? Call them falsified too?

        The other thing is that even a single percent deviation gives you — with Russia’s 110 million voters — a million fraudulent ballots. Clearly enough to impress any observer. Could it be that there were real falsifications of the election results — in hundreds of thousands votes — and yet, the result that UR has gotten, 49.3%, is largely correct? Simply because all “national” autonomous republics/districts — such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Mordovia, etc. — voted 100%?


        • says:

          Of course, the observers who did not observe any breaches, would not try to appeal to the public via their blogs etc. The others – who provide “unofficial” statistics and did see problems – would report mainly from traditional opposition centers – StP & Moscow. etc. At these places the UR could not do a greater disservice to itself by not ensuring that anyone who wanted, could “observe” the process and that the results were genuine. And film everything themselves. Instead they did exactly the opposite – why? That “why” is the question everyone will be asking. BTW I trust the official polls about as much as I trust the weather forecast for the coastal area where I usually go – I go the beach regardless of what they say & I seldom regret doing so. Our заблудший friend, writing for New Yorker, quotes some Russian elections official saying “Russia has only ever been good at two things: fighting off invaders and surviving famine,”


          • Alex,

            I’m TERRIBLY sorry: your comment was stuck in the spam folder, and I only noticed it a few minutes ago. This site is still new to me, and I learn something new every day. I promise to be more careful in the future.

            For the benefit of our заблудший friend and Russian election officials: ballet, chess, AK47 and блины. Well, Ms. Ioffe can be excused for ignoring AK47…


            • Alex says:

              No worries, Eugene – I know you for too long to get offended so easily : ) It was actually my fault – I did not realize that you might not know about the spam filter. Otherwise, when I want my comments to be read publicly, I insist on that.

              A riddle I recently asked the folks at the place I work: who is the Russian, whose name is known virtually to every adult on the Earth regardless of their religion, language and educational level.? (Kalashnikov)

  3. Dear Eugene,

    An interesting post and well informed post. However as I am sure you will agree it is one that however well informed is ultimately based on speculation. We are not privy to Putin’s and Medvedev’s private discussions and any speculation on their decisions can never be anything other than a well informed guess.

    In this case I must frankly tell you that I do not read the runes in the way you do. I doubt for example that what looks to me like a routine middle rank personnel change in the FSB has the importance you attach to it. As for the decision to withdraw cabinet ministers from the board of big companies, I have heard and seen nothing to suggest that it is going to be reversed. Instead I incline to the view that the decision was made once the presence of ministers was no longer needed because they had served their intended purpose, which was to ensure that following their privatisation and commercialisation these companies did not fall under foreign control. Neither of these incidents seems to me to point to the sort of power struggle that you are describing. By contrast on the last occasion when there definitely was a power struggle inside the Kremlin, during the political crisis of 1998 to 1999, the outward signs of that struggle were unambiguous.

    In one respect I would say that I do up to a point agree with you. In so far as Putin is the dominant partner in the tandem the main decision as to who would run must have been made by him. However Medvedev cannot have been entirely without a voice in this decision because he always had the option of publicly opposing it if he strongly disagreed with it.

    There is one other point I want to make. Though I disagree with you on the specifics I do think that (as always) you touch on an important point. THis is that throughout its history politics in Russia have a habit of being conducted in a conspiratorial way with governments rising or falling as a result either of conspiracies or revolutions. Moreover it is an iron rule of Russian power struggles that there is no after life for the losers. I cannot think of a single Russian politician, Tsarist, Soviet or post Soviet, who having lost a power struggle has ever come back. Of course at some points in Russian history (though thankfully not today) losing a power struggle was literally a death sentence.

    Because politics in Russia tends to be conducted in this fashion we tend to look for and see conspiracies even when (as I think in this case) they do not exist. This does create an unhealthy atmosphere in which rumours can run rife and where there is the deficit of trust that you discuss in this post. If Russia is to move forward then this Byzantine style of politics will have to be left behind. The very substantial opening up of the political system that has happened since 1985 provides some promise that that will one day happen but obviously there is still a long way to go.

  4. Dear Alexander,

    Thank you very much for your comment. Goes without saying: agreeing to disagree is something that hopefully everyone in this particular space — myself included — is adhering to.

    Sure, I wasn’t privy to conversations between Putin and Medvedev. However, may I suggest that you read Yurgens’ interview with the Kommersant?

    Granted, Yurgens wasn’t listening to these conversations, either, but he is quite close to Medvedev and obviously has his own insider sources of privileged information. His narrative is very similar to mine (and it would be disingenuous to deny that this Kommersant interview influenced my thinking).

    Obviously, I wasn’t writing a history of Medvedev’s presidency, so it wasn’t my intention to present all the fact in favor of my line of thinking. Yet, Ushakov wasn’t a middle-ranked FSB official; he was a deputy director. By the way, Putin never fired an FSB general in 8 years of his presidency. As for the board memberships. ministers were paid for them, often in the amount vastly exceeding their official ministerial salaries. Barring them from sitting on the boards actually deprived them of a good chunk of their income. This isn’t an insignificant matter.

    However, the ultimate test to my “conspiracy theories” will be the course of events in Russia. As part of his modernization agenda, Medvedev made certain decisions. As the next president, Putin can enforce these decisions, advance them or reverse them. It’s this simple. We’ll see.


    • Dear Eugene,

      I am afraid that I cannot read Yurgens’s interview because I do not speak Russian. Sorry!

      By the way let me make it clear that I am NOT accusing you of promoting a conspiracy theory. I hope I made it clear that I think your account is well informed. My point was that it was speculative.

      However my essential point is not that you were promoting a conspiracy theory but that Russian politics is still conspiratorial, which is why outsiders (like you!) are left trying to read the runes. This has to change and on that point I think we both agree.

      • Dear Alexander,

        Sorry for the confusion: your knowledge of Russia made me believe that you know Russian at least to some extent. Anyway, Yurgens is, of course, careful of not naming names, but his reading of the situation is clear: Medvedev was pushed.

        Now, the existence of different factions among Russian political elites — “liberals” and “conservatives” — is hardly a news. I personally always considered their existence as largely positive thing, a modicum of competition in the Russian notoriously opaque political system. So, it’s not the presence of “conservatives,” but, rather, their strength and influence on Putin that got me “excited.”

        The good news is that many questions that we asked each other here over the past couple of weeks will soon be answered by the events on the ground, in Russia. Some of the answers will start coming as early as the beginning of next year. Or so I believe.

        Best Regards,

  5. warts says:

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so abundant regarding this, such as you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you’ll do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, however alternative than that, this can be great blog. A nice read.

  6. Holly says:

    Sorry you are misinformed. The vast matirojy of the Russian dating websites are legitimate. Their pricing structures are wildly different. Some run on points and can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. That’s because you pay 10 points per letter written, 1 point to read one, 50 points for a video teleconference, and 100 points to send her roses. Exchanging any contact information before a certain point (in spending) is blocked.Others simply charge a fixed rate for one of 2 or 3 levels of access, and you can use it all you want for that fee. One I saw recently gave Gold or total access to all catalogs and all website features for US$ 99 per year. Silver access gave access to perhaps 2/3 of everything (and every girl) for US$ 29 per year.Then there are the tour companies those that sell the Romance Tours . Imagine being flown to an FSU city, and put into a so-so hotel. Then 2 or 3 times during your 2-week stay, about 40 or 50 guys are put into a hotel banquet hall with about 1000 local women (really!) almost all of them MUCH younger than you! You establish contact with them based on 10 minutes of conversation, then another is shoved in front of you for the same. You have a few days to date whoever strikes your fancy. Then you must decide (if at all) who to marry. This is a great way of getting laid, but a horrible way to choose a Life Partner. Most women who attend are looking for Party Time at your expense. Many of the others are trying to earn a Green Card on their back. Bad idea! It’s the individual girls who might be potentially scammers but very few statistically. I would say far less than ONE percent. Part of the cost of the more expensive websites is their extensive vetting of the legitimacy of the girls at least that they are who they say they are. Personal interviews, identity checks, and criminal background checks. They also assist with translators (letter, IM, and voice) and with travel bookings. (Essential factoid: do not go to a hotel in the FSU: rent a furnished apartment by the day instead.) The less expensive sites put more responsibility on vetting them on you. Not as difficult as it sounds: Get her physical (NOT mailing) address. Contract one of the Russian florist websites to send her some flowers (NEVER an even number, and NEVER yellow!). Upon request, the florist will request ID, and take a photo of the lady with her flowers. Then the florist will e-mail you the photo. For the cost of a few roses you will have an identity check, an address check, and a photo check. Is her love genuine? THAT you must figure out for yourself just like every other man who wanted to get married . Your biggest pitfall will be communications occasional language problems, but most definitely cultural differences!

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