President Medvedev’s score at half time

Two years ago, on 7 May 2008, Dmitri Medvedev was sworn in as president, re-placing Vladimir Putin. At this mid-point of his term in office, Dmitri Travin assesses his record so far and finds no cause for cheer.
Dmitri Travin
4 May 2010

Medvedev has not changed Russia. 

This is an extremely important conclusion, as ever since Medvedev became head of state, and even today, many people in Russia have been hoping that Putin’s successor would review Putin’s policy. They have been looking to him to liberalise the regime, step up the pace of reform and be more friendly towards the USA, the EU and post-Soviet nations, and striving for rapprochement with the West. 

Alas, few commentators in Russia today believe that Medvedev actually intends to make serious moves in this direction. Last autumn, when Medvedev’s article “Forward, Russia!” suddenly appeared on the Internet, it looked as if the political process really was changing. However, it is clear now that the Russian president has not gone beyond timid declarations. Moreover, the declarations he is making today are if anything even more timid than those he allowed himself to make in this article. What are we to make of this? 

These days, commentators fall into three categories in their attitude towards Medvedev. The first category largely consists of people in official and semi-official positions, who reflect the interests of the Kremlin in their assessments. According to them, Medvedev’s presidency should not result in any policy changes at all, as Putin knows exactly what Russia needs, and Medvedev is continuing the work of his predecessor. 

The second group, which consists of the most hard-line opposition, says that Medvedev is not even trying to change anything, as he belongs to the same elite as Putin. According to them, no amount of liberal rhetoric from Medvedev can conceal the fact that their views on fundamental political issues are the identical. 

Finally, a third group maintains that in an ideal world,  Medvedev probably would want changes, but that Putin, as Prime Minster, has kept all the levers of power in his hands. Since the president has no real power, he does not dare to change policy. If he did so, he would effectively lose the political battle. 

This third group is probably closest to the truth. But the problem facing Russia today is more deeply rooted than the fact that Medvedev is in no position to change Putin’s policy. It is understandable that there are quite objective reasons for which Medvedev obediently goes along with Putin’s policy. Putin is the one who has enjoyed a high level of support among Russian citizens for many years. Russians identify Putin with economic growth, and the corresponding growth in their real incomes. They associate Putin with firmness and consistency in overcoming the many problems of the 1990s. 

But Dmitry Medvedev’s record  in office, and indeed his position in power, are also explained by a more personal reading of the man. The longer the president remains in his post, the more familiar we become with his actions, the clearer the logic of his appointment  as head of the Russian state becomes. I would go as far as to say that from the very beginning Putin selected a successor whose personal qualities would mean that he would not be able to dispute Putin’s claim to political leadership.

 In order to examine this more closely, we should take a closer look at Putin’s appointments since he became president. In the last ten years certain patterns have emerged which were not obvious at the time. 

Putin’s shrewd analysis of character 

When a friend once asked Putin where his real ability lay, he admitted that he was a professional communicator. This answer is recorded in the book “Ot pervogo litsa. Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym “ (First Person: an Astonishingly Frank Self-portrait. Talks with Vladimir Putin), Moscow, Vagrius, 2000, p. 41. In other words, Putin has a good understanding of people, can determine what they are capable of, and what their reactions are going to be when things get tough.

This suggests that the main distinguishing feature of Russia’s Prime Minister today has nothing to do with economics or politics, with large-scale reforms, or his ability to ensure the long-term stability of the Russian state. It has to do with his ability to choose staff and manipulate them in such a way that he can carry out his own agenda. 

Perhaps Putin was well trained in this field in the KGB, where he worked for many years. Or perhaps he has a natural talent when it comes to such things. At any rate, he is streets ahead of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and his famous instinct, which was much discussed by Russian politicians and political analysts in the 1990s. 

Putin’s staff policy is interesting not so much for the way that he distanced himself from the Yeltsin clan, removing from power people who were previously influential like Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexander Voloshin, as for the way that he has selected his own appointees. Commentators note in particular that he has only taken on people to work in the government and presidential structures whom he knew in the past – in the Petersburg mayoral office, among the KGB or in the dacha cooperative “Ozero” near Petersburg. While this is, of course, true, the significant point is that Putin has taken great care to appoint each member of the ruling elite to positions in which they would benefit the leader, and most importantly could not damage him.

The key principle at work here was that of bringing superficial people to the political surface, but keeping the most able members of  his team away from the gaze of the crowd, which loves nothing better than having a new idol.

Who’s who on Putin’s team 

The people whom Putin promoted to the very top of public politics are Mikhail Fradkov, Viktor Zubkov, Sergei Mironov and Boris Gryzlov. The first two were former prime ministers and the others are both parliamentary speakers who are also the leaders of the two main pro-Kremlin parties – “United Russia” and “Just Russia”. He took all four of them from nowhere, and could at any moment put them back where they came from. They had no public profile until Putin took them on, and their authority depends entirely on his authority. 

The speakers look quite presentable, as they have to be watched by people on television, who then vote for one pro-Kremlin party or another. But neither Mironov nor Gryzlov are capable of pursuing any independent policy. They would not be dangerous for Putin if they were suddenly to escape his control. If anyone doubts this, they should study the “masterpieces” of their intellectual activity over the last decade. Both Mironov and Gryzlov have said some very strange things at times when there were no experienced speechwriters or political spin doctors nearby.

Unlike the speakers, the prime ministers were selected for being people who would not only be incapable of attracting a wide following, but would even put them off.  Fradkov and Zubkov are not, to put it mildly, good candidates for public politics. They were completely nominal figures, whose true function was to conceal the fact that Putin always worked directly with key ministers. Fradkov and Zubkov were simply keeping the prime ministerial post seat warm until such time as Putin needed it himself.

The people who have wielded real power over the last decade are Igor Sechin, Vyacheslav Surkov, Sergei Ivanov and Alexei Kudrin. Each has been responsible for a government sector that was important for the overall functioning of the state, or for the ruling clique in particular. Each has been severely restricted by Putin from having anything to do with issues that did not concern their narrow sphere of activity. It was Putin alone who coordinated all these operations when he was president, and not the prime minister or the head of the Kremlin administration.

The people who made real politics were often in conflict – sometimes harsh, antagonistic conflict - with one another.  This meant that they were no more dangerous to Putin than the public politicians he had created. Sechin, Surkov, Ivanov and Kudrin, unlike Fradkov, Zubkov, Mironov and Gryzlov, had colossal influence in certain circles. But none of them could have influence in all circles at once. They were not capable of uniting to increase their collective political weight. 

The right man in the right place 

This careful deployment of personnel is one of the main reasons (along with petrodollars and the authoritarian mindset of the masses) for Putin’s political longevity. If one looks at the issue of Medvedev’s selection as successor in this context, then a great deal becomes clear. 

It is no coincidence that Medvedev is a university lecturer without a striking appearance, with little authority among both the siloviki and major business figures, not to mention the wider masses. That is why he was chosen. Putin chose the person in his circle who would be least capable of pursuing an independent policy, even if he had presidential power. 

Various people close to Medvedev are now spurring him on to do great deeds. Speechwriters probably write vivid texts for him like his open letter “Forward, Russia!” Mikhail Gorbachev himself, the father of Russian reform, talks of the need for Medvedev to create a political party. But alas, there are no great deeds, there is no moving forward, and no political party. This is because the divide is too great between the formal powers held by President Medvedev, and Medvedev’s real abilities, as evinced by his character and biography. 

Putin chose his man well. Do not expect change in Putin’s policies.


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