The president for the next four months

On Dec. 31, 1999, the ailing President of Russia Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned and transferred the supreme power in the country to his young and energetic prime minister, Vladimir Putin.  Putin went on to win the presidential election on March 26, 2000.

A few weeks ago, a rumor began circulating in Moscow that the “1999 scenario” was about to be repeated.  The rumor held that by the end of last year, President Dmitry Medvedev would have resigned and appointed his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting president.  Putin would then have used his consolidated authority to win the presidency in the first round of the vote on March 4.

This hasn’t happened.  On Dec. 31 both leaders addressed the nation with traditional New Year greetings that carried no surprises.  It therefore looks almost certain that Medvedev will remain President of Russia for the next four months.

It would also appear that the major intra-tandem agreement announced last September – Putin wins the presidency and appoints Medvedev his prime minister – still remains in force.  The recent appointment of Vladislav Surkov as vice premier responsible for innovation and modernization (including the Skolkovo project) wouldn’t make any sense without Medvedev in the White House.

And yet, it’s hard to believe that nothing has changed at all within the Putin-Medvedev duo.  Take, for instance, the reaction of the two at the public protests that erupted following the Dec. 4 Duma elections.  While Putin still appears unable to control his anger at the protesters, Medvedev’s response has been more nuanced.  Despite calling the protest movement “foam” at the beginning of his annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly, he later sounded almost conciliatory: “I hear those who speak for the need of changes, and I understand them.”  Moreover, in his address, Medvedev proposed a number of reforms aimed at liberalization of Russia’s political system, including a set of new rules on political party registration.

The very scope of Medvedev’s proposals implies that they were prepared well in advance of the address.  But having failed to explain why he had waited until he was a lame-duck president to announce these proposals, Medvedev implicitly admitted that he wasn’t allowed to do so by Putin and the conservative faction of Russian political elites.  Consequently, Medvedev’s address was in essence an attempt to preserve the remnants of his reputation of being a political liberal; an act committed despite the wishes – and, perhaps, even without getting the prior approval – of Putin.  The latter point was also made by the ultimate Kremlin insider, Gleb Pavlovsky, who suggested that Medvedev’s recent moves were not “coordinated” with the prime minister.

Obviously, Medvedev recognizes that he has very little room for maneuver.  The appointment of two ultimate Putin loyalists, Sergei Ivanov and Vyacheslav Volodin, as the chief and deputy-chief of the presidential administration makes it virtually certain that Medvedev’s promises of political reforms were the last bold move of his presidency.  Besides, even pushing the reformist legislation through the new Duma, as Medvedev is planning, won’t be easy.  The Duma might not be a place for discussions; but it isn’t a place for collective hara-kiri, either.  Neither the majority represented by the United Russia party, nor the opposition still high on its suddenly increased clout, expressed any interest in promoting legislations that would increase the level of political competition in the country.

In addition to the short-term concerns, Medvedev still faces a fundamental long-term problem.  If the events of the past year taught Medvedev anything, this was the lesson of the importance of having a solid political base of his own.  And here, Medvedev’s relations with the United Russia party become essential.  As part of his agreements with Putin, Medvedev led the party list in the Duma elections, and the original plan had Medvedev replacing Putin as the party’s chairman after the end of his presidency in May.

There is every reason to suspect that so far, the Medvedev-United Russia one-night-stand hasn’t developed into a stable relationship.  There was no love between the two in the first place, as Medvedev often criticized the edinorosses, and the latter naturally gravitated to Putin as a “national leader” with higher approval ratings.  The December Duma elections where United Russia, despite being “helped,” suffered significant losses obviously haven’t made mutual feelings warmer.  The edinorosses are still in a state of shock at what they consider Putin’s cheating on them with the All-Russian Popular Front.  Yet, they want to believe that having used the Front for the purpose of winning the presidential election, Putin will return in the “family.”  They are therefore hesitant to commit themselves to a new relationship, especially with a second-choice suitor.

This may leave Medvedev with the only rational course of action: to create his own, brand-new political party.  Wasn’t it what he had in mind when he proposed a speedy procedure for the political party registration?

In any case, Medvedev has a lot of important decisions to make in the last four months of his presidency.  Some of them will ultimately determine whether this presidency will be his last or he’ll have a chance for an encore.

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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10 Responses to The president for the next four months

  1. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene ..
    If I were to choose a picture for your post – you know, the one usually in the left hand side corner at the start – I would be collated in Photoshop photo of academic A. Sakharov in his house in Niznyi Novgorod, apparently listening to the music (perhaps, with a hint of a disgusted expression on his face). Next to the LP player would be an empty LP disk envelope with clearly visible title in Russian – ” Агата Кристи – Эпилог”. Maybe I would add a book to the picture – also with easily read title – “Almost Zero”.

    Thanks, a very good post.

    Cheers
    PS my x-mas break has finished, so I won;t be able to read your posts as regularly as I would like to.

  2. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    An interesting article.

    I have to say that I don’t myself see Medvedev setting up his own party and to be honest I am beginning to become concerned that with ideas for new parties proliferating all over the place and being discussed by the likes of Prokhorov, Kudrin and Navalny and with PARNAS already in notional existence the field is beginning to look very crowded. There is it seems to me the risk that what all these parties if they are ever formed will do is what Giuseppe Flavio has previously said, which is fight over the same very limited electoral space. if so this could subvert the one real achievement of the liberal opposition in the election, which was to consolidate the liberal vote for the first time in one party namely Yabloko. It also risks undermining what in my opinion might turn out to be another potential achievement of the election, which is the emergence in the form of Fair Russia of a possible viable moderate socialist party on the left.

    Surely the correct thing for all these people to do is to decide which existing party most reflects their own views and to join it. Prokhorov, Kudrin, Kasparov, the PARNAS group and the rest of the non socialist opposition might join Yabloko and Navalny might apply to rejoin it. If they are unhappy with its present left of centre orientation they could then campaign from within Yabloko to move Yabloko closer to their own views though I have to say that the record of right wing free market parties in Russian elections is frankly discouraging. Doing this is the sort of thing that happens in other countries with party systems. Political parties are almost always coalitions of people who do not always agree about everything but who do hold certain principles in common and who share a certain political direction. As we say in Britain they are a “broad Church”.

    As for Medvedev if he does not want to be associated with United Russia then perhaps he should consider teaming up with Fair Russia, which it seems is the party his wife votes for and which I believe supports most if not all of the proposals he has now made. Its leader Mironov recently spoke quite favourably of Medvedev and the party once thought of itself as an establishment party and could conceivably do so again.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      As a line from one of my favorite books reads: let’s consider problems in the order of their appearance. The new rules of party registration haven’t yet been adopted, and I’m not 100% sure that they’ll be adopted exactly in the way Medvedev suggested. The Duma may well rebel.

      That said, I have one overriding feeling: the fate of political parties in Russia must be decided by the free market of political ideas — and not by any other factors, obviously not by the Kremlin. If Russian liberals will be unable to unite under the new system, that’s their problem. Just a word of caution from a man who’ve been watching Russian political parties for years: forget about Navalny re-joining Yabloko — or Prokhorov and Kudrin joining. It’s not even about ideological differences. Yavlinsky will never let anyone bright in his party. He could be democrat and liberal all right, by the way he runs his party can be described by one single word: dictatorial. He ain’t need no competitors.

      As for Medvedev, I don’t know what he wants. In Russia, all parties are “made” for a particular person. So regardless of whether or not Medvedev is ideologically compatible with JR, JR is Mironov’s party. What are you going to do with Mironov then? It’d be easier for Medvedev to start a party from scratch. He definitely can claim 500 supporters.

      Best,
      Eugene

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  3. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    By the way, viz your comment about the lack of interest shown in measures to open up the degree of political competition in the country, I agree with you. I have come round to what I believe is your view that the threshold in Duma elections should be brought down to 3% precisely so that parties like Yabloko that poll around 3-4% can get into the Duma. An alternative would perhaps be Medvedev’s proposal for a reform of the Duma’s position though the proposals are vague to say the least.

    Unfortunately there seems to be almost no interest in these proposals even though they could determine the future direction of the country. It seems to me that what the liberal opposition ought now to be doing is not refighting the battle of the parliamentary elections but focusing on getting its voice heard so that the proposals are properly worked out. Obviously it does not help that they are not represented in the Duma but the Communists and Fair Russia seem not unsympathetic to some constructive views and with effective lobbying something might be achieved.

    Unfortunately it has always seemed to me that there is little genuine interest within the opposition in such questions and that such discussion as takes place is largely posturing. Nor does it help that in the past when it has been in power the liberal opposition has also shown itself more interested in rigging the system in its favour than in developing a stable constitutional and administrative framework. Russia’s existing constitution, imposed on the country as a result of the political crisis of 1993, is a case in point. The danger is that when the present tide of political protest ebbs the window for meaningful constitutional and administrative reform will close.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      I agree with your very last point. The scale of the recent protests reflects first and foremost the widespread perception that the Duma elections have been rigged. It’s not about the lack of organized liberal movement. Should the opposition drop the request for the new Duma election — and focus on some long-term projects — the protest moment will be immediately lost.

      Best,
      Eugene

  4. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    Sorry to bombard your post with comments.

    I was just ruminating on what might be a proper platform for the liberal opposition to follow at the present time. What about the following suggestions as a start:

    1. Unite behind a candidate for the forthcoming Presidential elections. This could be either Yavlinsky or Mironov. Yavlinsky is the candidate who more closely reflects the liberal opposition’s opinions but Mironov is the only candidate who the liberal opposition might be able to talk with who could conceivably win in a run off (though obviously that is very unlikely).

    2. Put forward concrete proposals for how elections can be made more transparent that go beyond the ritual demands for the dismissal of Churov. So far all the running has been made by the government with its proposals for cameras and transparent ballot boxes. Those proposals by the way I am far from happy with since it seems to me that they risk compromising the secrecy of the ballot.

    3. Clarify precisely what constitutional and administratiive reforms they want to see and what their position in relation to those Medvedev has proposed is.

    4. What steps does it propose for securing the further independence and professionalisation of the judiciary going beyond the proposals and reforms the government is already making? Bluntly I think there is far too much emphasis on a small number of sensation cases (Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky) and far little interest in the generality of the court system and how this affects people and businesses in their everyday lives.

    5. Given Russia’s immense size and diversity how do they think local government should organised? Do they think that the representation of the regions at the centre is adequate?

    6. What ideas do they have for how the suggested neutral broadcaster will be organised. How would such a broadcaster be funded and what steps would be taken to ensure its neutrality and independence?

    At the end of the day the liberal opposition also has go beyond criticism and has to start putting forward some sort of economic and social programme for the country. Does it support more privatisation or less? What is its attitude towards state spending? Does it agree with the increases in the military budget? Does it think (as I do) that more should be spent on education? How should education and healthcare be funded? What is its attitude to the tax system? Do they think taxes should be reduced or increased? Should the country have a science policy as it did very successfully in the 1930s (when it was largely organised by Nikolai Bukharin) and if so what would this involve? What view does it have about social security spending and employment rights and how does it think social security including pensions should be organised and paid for?

    Say what you will about it the KPRF does put forward its programme even if its details are vague and even if much of it looks to me utopian. I cannot really say the same about the liberal opposition. Without a programme I for one find it difficult to take it seriously as a serious contender for power. I suspect that if it really did start to put a programme together some of the frankly irritating exhibitionism we see would fade away at which point people might start taking it more seriously and might even think that it has something to say to them.

  5. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    You’re making very good points, but let’s first agree on terminology, for it seems to me that you’re conflating the “liberal opposition” with the “protest movement” of which the liberal opposition is only part of.

    PARNAS party program addresses many points you mentioned. So does Prokhorov’s recently unveiled election program, however imperfect. And although I personally don’t consider Yabloko a bona fide liberal party, their program also touches upon things you care about. So the liberal opposition does have a “platform;” what it doesn’t have is a functional party.

    The protest movement is a different beast. It includes people of different political views who’re only united for the moment by their outrage at the authorities because of the Duma elections. Creating a unified election platform will be impossible for these people, and this is hardly what they are targeting at. The official name of their movement is “For fair elections!” — and this is exactly what they want.

    I’m too curious with regards to what their position will be vis-a-vis the presidential election. Whether they’ll unite against a single candidate or choose something else. By the way, neither Yavlinsky nor Prokhorov is officially registered as candidate yet. Should both get on the ballot, then Prokhorov will be the likely “united candidate,” IMHO. Mironov? Mironov is close personal friend of Putin. Sure, they’ve had some problems recently, but Mironov’s loyalty to Putin is unquestionable. He’ll never run against Putin in a run off.

    Best,
    Eugene

  6. anton1bogd says:

    Today there is no worth candidate in Russia.A lot of people think that even Putin’s chances are low. What do you think about it? For example,according to the following article: http://en.kapital-rus.ru/article/322, the ratings of Putin and Medvedev are the lowest and decrease all the time. People are dissatisfied with the current situation! And all this leads to political distabilization

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