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?