In the lead-up to the 2012 Russian presidential election, conflict has erupted within the Russian ruling tandem over Libya, but can it dent Putin’s seemingly unassailable position? Dmitry Travin considers the possibilities.
A long-awaited event has at last come to pass on the Russian political scene. Putin and Medvedev have crossed swords, and it was over Muammar Gaddafi. As the presidential election, scheduled for March 2012, draws ever nearer, the conflict within the Russian ruling tandem is building up with such intensity that it was bound to come to the surface sooner or later.
If Gaddafi had not existed, then he would have had to be invented.
Putin and Gaddafi: mistakes
On 21 March Medvedev made a special statement about the situation in Libya. He said straight out that “on no account should any expressions be used which might provoke a clash of civilisations, such as ‘crusade’ or anything similar”. Shortly before this statement, none other than Vladimir Putin had used just that word in a speech to workers at a factory in one of the far-off corners of Russia.
This gave rise to an interesting and difficult situation: all the Kremlin propaganda about the unshakeable permanence of the ruling tandem disintegrated in a flash. But it's worth examining what is left behind in the fall-out, as it's not scandals that influence politics, but shifts in the balance of power.
I will take the risk of saying that no such shift has taken place. The real sensation was not the open confrontation between Putin and Medevedev on 21 March: it happened 18 months ago (10 September 2009), when the President published his article “Forward, Russia!” in the internet. Not everyone noticed at the time that the force of the blow he struck at Putin could be described as nuclear, though only the most trusting and inattentive readers missed the point.
What, for instance, about the phrase “Russia's mutual relationships with leading democratic countries should not be characterised by defensiveness, arrogance, complexes, mistrust and, especially, hostility”? It's difficult not to understand who it was on the Russian side that was demonstrating arrogance and a tendency to complexes. Before Medvedev became president, one man in the Kremlin had decided Russia's foreign policy – and that man was Putin.
Medvedev struck that blow at Putin's most vulnerable spot. It would have been all right if he'd said that Putin had made mistakes or had been too trenchant. But no, he stressed Putin's most difficult character traits: his arrogance, his complexes i.e. things that any conceited man (especially a high-ranking one) finds particularly difficult to recognise in himself.
It's not scandals that influence politics, but shifts in the balance of power. And no such shift has taken place
In that sense the most recent statement that Putin is “provoking a confrontation of civilisations” is comparatively mild, possibly even justifiable. A great man, as it were. Not arrogant or full of complexes, but so influential that one phrase from him can lead to a clash of civilisations. Putin was probably pleased that Medvedev had suddenly lost his nerve and changed his suit for a jacket with a two-headed eagle and the words “Supreme Commander” on it before running to the TV cameras to make a statement about Putin and Gaddafi's mistakes.
The battle between the Kremlin towers
The significance of the current row should not be exaggerated, as the issue of real importance for today's Russia is not how Medvedev and Putin are getting on (or not) – that's all quite clear. What matters is the balance of power between them. In a year's time the power will be in the hands of the man who controls parliament, the siloviki, the bureaucracy, television and all the other means of exerting serious influence on society. Medvedev and Putin will not battle it out as presidential candidates in the USA do, when both are in the same weight category and can avail themselves of approximately similar means for influencing the masses.
In Russia today it's still Putin who is really in control. Medvedev can make broad statements. He can decide foreign policy questions where not much stands by whatever actions might be taken by Russia. Finally, he can even get rid of high-ranking officials (as he did with the Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov), whom Putin would probably have left in post. But our current President is unable to strengthen his position in his own office, the ruling party (United Russia) or in the security services, whose actions actually determine the political landscape.
Not one of the leaders in the USSR or Russia (possibly excluding Konstantin Chernenko, who was already terminally ill during his year in post) has managed to put so few of his own people into leading government positions as Medvedev. Those he has advanced include the head of the Presidential Control Department, Konstantin Chuichenko, the Presiding Judge of the Supreme Court of Arbitration Anton Ivanov and, possibly, the Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov. With such a weak team it's difficult to claim absolute power and dominance over Putin.
All those people who have in one way or another said recently that Medvedev must remain as president – Natalya Timakova, Arkadii Dvorkovich, Igor Yurgens and Gleb Pavlovsky – are assistants or advisers, people who are closer to the power of the intellectuals (who don't manage anyone and have no direct influence on anything).
President Medvedev is unable to strengthen his position in his own office, the ruling party (United Russia) or in the security services, whose actions actually determine the political landscape
In all other respects the Russian government today is an infinite empire ruled by Putin. People in his entourage may fight for individual areas of power, to be able to use state finances in their own interests or for the opportunity of advising Putin in some way. In current Russian TV political science this has been dubbed “the battle between the Kremlin towers”. In this battle Medvedev can be compared to the signature Kremlin tower, the Spasskaya. But Putin is the central belltower of Ivan the Great, rising above all the other squabbling towers and personally taking all the decisions that matter.
Good cop, bad cop?
On the practical level the current conflict between Putin and Medvedev can influence one of the issues which are important for Russia. But, paradoxical as it may seem, this question has nothing to do with the upcoming presidential election or the struggle for power or, even, for determining Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. The issue in question is the long overdue removal of the barriers for Russia to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Should he so wish, Medvedev can present his conflict with Putin to the Americans as a battle which will determine Russia's future policies towards the USA. If I'm president, as it were, you will have my support in your most important foreign policy issues, as you did recently over Iran and Libya. But if Putin returns to power as president, you'll get threatening statements of the kind he made at Munich, and a return to the Cold War.
If Washington decides that Russia really does have a choice between Putin and Medvedev, there is a possibility that Medvedev could be asked if he needs any help. There is obviously no actual possibility of the West being able to help him in any way. In 2012 the decision who's going to be president in Russia will be taken by Putin, not Obama. But in this situation Medvedev is presented with the opportunity of bargaining for something that will gain him a place in history, rather than success in the presidential election. Russia joining the WTO during the Medvedev presidency will not change the political landscape. But, in the opinion of future historians of economic development, Medvedev will have made at least one serious move, because entry into WTO is extremely important for the development of foreign trade.
This is essentially what Putin wants too, of course, in spite of his anti-American statements. In this sense the story of the fight between Putin and Medvedev could be described as a game of good cops and bad cops, the goal of which is to sting Washington into action over the shameful delay in Russia's entry into the WTO. It's true that too much hangs on the Medvedev-Putin affair for it to be described as merely a game. But if the general fear of Putin returning to the Kremlin means that Russia does finally become a member of the WTO, it'll be no bad thing to come out of the political struggle. Then it won't seem so important that the Americans are not actually able to do anything to help Medvedev in his attempts to remain in his post as President of Russia.