Medvedev: goodbye to all that?

Dmitri Travin
11 May 2009

 On the eve of the first anniversary of the inauguration of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, rumours spread across the country that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might dismiss the head of state. Yes, rumours that Putin was planning to dismiss Medvedev, not the other way around. And there's no need to look to the Russian Constitution to clarify the legal conditions for this kind of action, as of course there is no such provision.  Legally no one in power has the right to dismiss the president, who was elected by the whole country. Only members of parliament can impeach the head of state under certain conditions. But the rumours persist, and it must be admitted that they find some justification in Russian political reality.

Firstly, everyone knows that Medvedev only became the president of Russia because Putin chose him from among numerous associates and supporters. What's more, an important factor for Putin seems to have been that, unlike others close to him, the "intellectual" Medvedev had no serious influence in government, "siloviki" or business circles.   He has never had his own base: he depended completely on support from Putin.  Many people still call Putin the national leader, emphasizing that informally his status is higher than the president's.

Secondly, in his first year in office Medvedev was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to appoint his own people to any leading government positions. Putin's protégés now predominate in the government and among the siloviki. Even key figures in the presidential administration owe their rise to power to Putin, not to Medvedev. The Russian president still has no personal support staff. A year ago he was one of the players in Putin's team and, essentially, he still is - albeit the highest ranking.

So if Putin were to ask Medvedev to step down voluntarily, then Medvedev would probably be forced to agree, though not because he has no allies to fight for him. He has no power anyway, so it would be pointless to resist dismissal. As a powerless president, he can do nothing in foreign or domestic politics that would contravene Putin's policy.

Whether there is any point in Putin "dismissing" Medvedev and standing for president once more is another matter. The arguments advanced by those who consider this likely are primarily connected with the problems of the galloping economic crisis.

The situation in Russia is not easy. On the one hand, the government has managed to prevent the most pessimistic scenario that was discussed a great deal at the end of last year. The banking system did not collapse, and the devaluation of the ruble turned out to be quite modest compared with the devaluation of 1998. But on the other hand, preliminary estimates show a 9.5% fall of GDP in the first quarter of this year.  Unemployment is rapidly increasing and so far there are no serious grounds for believing that there is any relatively quick fix. 

Of course, in crisis conditions like this the economy could be bolstered more quickly by rejecting any sort of populism - state support for inefficient enterprises, acceding to lobbyists' demands or a budget deficit that is too high for the economy to stand etc. Moreover, taking a harsh, non-populist line is always easier when power is concentrated in one person's hands. This is why those who support the theory of Medvedev's dismissal believe the time has come for the reins of power, both formal and informal, to be in Putin's hands.

This may offer an effective administrative solution, but it is unlikely to be so effective in the political sense. It will not be easy to explain to society why a president who is younger than Putin and in excellent health is resigning. Russians regard the relations between the two leaders as being ideal. The older politician has often spoken of the merits of the younger one, and Medvedev has constantly been telling us that he learned a lot from Putin when he worked on his team. However Medvedev's sudden resignation is portrayed, it is bound to leave an unpleasant feeling among supporters of Putin's political system.

Yet the removal of the president would not be particularly dangerous for Putin. The well-developed propaganda machine will find a way of justifying it. But the advantages of this dismissal will still not outweigh the disadvantages, as the concentration of power in Putin's hands is, to my mind, not as important as some commentators would suggest.

In his year in power Dmitry Medvedev has only shown independence in a few symbolic gestures. He has never attempted to change Vladimir Putin's policies in any way. In other words, Medvedev wants society to see him as president and to remember him for some of the decisions he took.  But there is no way that these decisions can change the Putin line, which has been developing over the last 10 years.

One of Medvedev's symbolic gestures that received wide coverage recently was his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the USSR, and Dmitry Muratov, editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the few truly independent Russian publications. Whereas Putin frequently talked harshly about representatives of the opposition, Medvedev's symbolic act was undoubtedly a move towards national reconciliation.

However, Putin's use of the media as an instrument of state propaganda remains unchanged. The main television channels have no freedom at all, and no opportunity to express views other than the official one on key issues. It is television, not newspapers or the internet, that determines people's electoral preferences. Controlling television is absolutely essential if Putin is going to  keep control politically.  

Another symbolic gesture that has been widely discussed in Russia recently is the personnel list which Medvedev has drawn up.  He has published a list of 100 relatively young people, whom he says he will draw on to make high-level appointments. This approach is quite unlike Putin's: the prime minister's appointments to posts of any importance whatsoever have gone to acquaintances who have worked at the St. Petersburg mayor's office (where Putin was the first deputy mayor until 1996) or in state security (where Putin began his career in the Soviet period).

In recent months, Medvedev has made two significant appointments from his personnel list: the governor of the Pskov Oblast and the head of administration in a district of St. Petersburg. Both  were well-known activists from Putin's United Russia party, and neither position has any real political significance. Functionaries from United Russia have been appointed to such posts before there was any such thing as a presidential list, while high-ranking jobs in politics and business have been reserved for Putin's inner circle. So far no one from Medvedev's list has been appointed to a high-rank post.

Another symbolic gesture was the change in election legislation initiated by Medvedev. Instead of lowering the 7% barrier, which stops small political parties from having representation in the State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament), the Russian president proposed to allow one or two representatives of political parties into parliament who receive more than 5% but less than 7% of votes at elections. There is only one explanation for this strange initiative: Medvedev wants to appear more of a democrat than Putin, but does not want to make any radical changes to the political legacy he inherited from his predecessor.

Over the last year, Medvedev has uttered many fine phrases. That freedom is better than no freedom, for example, and that the state must not make life a nightmare for business. However, no real steps have been made to expand economic freedom. Business is still terrified by the state, as can be seen by the scale of capital flight from Russia during the economic crisis.

But on all fundamental issues of foreign and domestic policy, Medvedev has offered Putin his full support over the past year. The Russian president has been as tough as his predecessor on the conflict with Georgia, as also on the sale of gas to European countries via Ukraine. He has never tried to make fundamental changes to economic policy. He does not support the restoration of gubernatorial elections. Nor is he taking any action to review Mikhail Khodorkovsky's case.

It is true that Svetlana Bakhmina, mother of three children and a lawyer who worked for Khodorkovsky in the past, was released recently. But this is probably just a symbolic gesture. Perhaps it shows the relative humaneness of "Medvedev's time", but it does not show that anything has changed fundamentally in the Russian legal system.

So it can hardly be said that serious conflicts have arisen between Putin and Medvedev over the last year. Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Russian president is merely waiting for a convenient moment to strengthen his political position, and that he may get this moment as the crisis deepens. However, it is not likely at present that Putin will want to return to his presidential post to consolidate his own power, thereby destroying the Russians' cherished idyll of his joint rule with Medvedev.
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