Russia's post-election balance

Andrew Wilson
3 March 2008

Dmitry Medvedev has won his predictable landslide as the new president of Russia. His victory in the election of 2 March 2008 was never in doubt, given the Kremlin's preference for coronation over competition. The Kremlin even overcame earlier reservations about Medvedev outscoring the 64% won by the pro-Vladimir Putin political formation United Russia in the Duma elections of December 2007 (with Putin himself at the head of its list). The preliminary official result of the presidential poll gives Medvedev 70.2%, and his 52.2 million votes exceeds the 49.6 million Putin won in 2004.

Andrew Wilson is senior lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London. Among his books are The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2002), Ukraine's Orange Revolution (Yale University Press, 2005), Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World (Yale University Press, 2005)

Also by Andrew Wilson in openDemocracy:

"Ukraine's crisis of governance" (30 April 2007)

"'Virtual politics' in the ex-Soviet bloc" (17 July 2007)

Andrew Wilson is also senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR). His full report on the Russian elections for the ECFR - "Meeting Medvedev: The Politics of the Putin Succession" - is here

But Russia's real election-day came much earlier: on 10 December 2007 to be precise, when President Putin first publicly anointed Medvedev - first deputy prime minister, former Kremlin chief-of-staff and a long-time ally - as his chosen successor. The entire process suggests that Russia may be an imperfect democracy at best, but that has not stopped Medvedev being widely depicted as a "liberal" (see, for example, Nicolai N Petro, "The Medvedev moment", 28 February 2008).

The implication is that his election might herald a new start for Russia (and for relations between Russian and the west) rather than more of the same - a future of "Putinism without Putin". Which outcome is more likely? This question in turn raises four more.

A question of balance

First, then, how liberal is Dmitry Medvedev likely to be? In the Russian context, "liberal" means first and foremost opposing the elite of well-connected former or current security agents known as the siloviki - and often no more than that. To make his mark, Medvedev will have to show that he is also a liberal in the more substantial sense - and transcend, if not actually dismantle, the system that made him. Russia has been "lost in transition" for a long time, but it has also lost its compass. The country still has an all-pervasive system of "political technology" which has proven addictive and extremely hard to eradicate.

There is an argument that Russia does not need the methods of this system anymore. Putin is popular enough, and is assumed to be able to transfer his popularity to his protégé. Indeed, manipulation in this election process - including the use of "administrative resources" - was particularly brazen. This benefited Medvedev the victor, and he will be marked by the original sin by which he was elected. But one reason for relative optimism is that it was not he, but the siloviki, that took such a tough line against the remnants of the old liberal opposition (the exclusion of Mikhail Kasyanov and the arrest of Garry Kasparov, for example). Moreover, in doing so the siloviki were not really thinking in the present tense - they wanted to take out the opposition now to prevent Medvedev reaching out to it a few years down the line.

Second, how will the proposed "cohabitation" work, with Putin proposing to stay on as prime minister under President Medvedev? Russian presidents have formidable constitutional powers, but their role is also to balance the Kremlin factions. Politics has if anything become more factionalised in Putin's second term. The feeding-trough has got bigger as Russia's energy economy has boomed, and the increased role of the state has increased the possibilities for arbitrary redistribution.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society:

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (2 May 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)

Mary Dejevsky, "After Putin" (21 September 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski"Vladimir Putin for ever" (2 October 2007)

Anna Sevortian, "Russia: seeds of change" (20 November 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The future is ours: Russia's youth activists in dialogue" (19 January 2008)

George Schöpflin, "The new Russia: a model state" (26 February 2008)

Nicolai N Petro, "The Medvedev moment" (28 February 2008)

Medvedev was therefore chosen for reasons of balance, not suddenly to reverse the illiberal trend of the last few years. He has, as yet, no strong clan of his own. The siloviki (and in particular the Sechin group) are strong enough to counterbalance Medvedev. If the new president had been one of their own, Medvedev would have been unable to balance them. In fact, the Sechin group's recent self-aggrandisement (evidenceed in Russneft and the "three whales affair") has been the main factor threatening to create disequilibrium in the system. Among Putin's roles as prime minister will be to serve as Medvedev's "minder", preventing the Sechin siloviki from having too much direct access to power.

At the same time, almost everything else about the proposed Putin-Medvedev tandem makes little sense. In Russian political culture, power normally runs clearly from a single source. The Russian word dvoevlastie ("dual power", with the implied threat of anarchy) doesn't even make sense in English. In the west, the "separation of powers" is normally seen as a good thing. The constitution clearly favours the presidency. The media spotlight will shift, as it will follow the new president as he goes about his work. Who will run the security services? Who will run foreign policy? Will Putin stick around if economic difficulties accumulate (especially as the prime minister is the traditional fall-guy in this regard?).

A political inheritance

Third, therefore, will Dmitry Medvedev eventually be his own man? The "laws of succession" allowed Putin his "Yukos moment" in 2003, after which he cut free from the old Boris Yeltsin "family". In time, Medvedev may do the same. But there are other possibilities: that the new president turns out to be a weak figurehead, with Putin continuing to exercise too much power behind the throne; or that the Sechin group upsets the system's balance from the other flank. In the latter circumstance, it would be significant that Dmitry Medvedev has few allies left in the opposition. "Liberal oligarchs" like Anatoly Chubais and Aleksandr Voloshin are too emblematic of the unpopular 1990s to be allowed to make too public a comeback. Medvedev may have to look for allies against the Sechin group amongst rival siloviki instead.

It seems clear that the system has not yet found a new equilibrium. The Russian elite is looking out for signals as to who will be in charge. Until it gets them, its members cannot play their allotted roles

Fourth, in light of recent tensions what are the prospects for a rapprochement between Russia and the west? Russia's current obsession with "sovereignty" has internal roots, namely strengthening central control over the regions; but it has been a cover too for so-called "counter-revolutionary technology": isolating Russia from any threat of a "colour revolution" on its doorstep. Now this threat is over, and the election cycle is out of the way, there is some hope that the Kremlin might relax. The new Kremlin psychology, on the other hand, the elite's palpable pride in Russia's rebirth as a great power, will be around for a lot longer.

Europe can therefore welcome Medvedev's election, but its response will be all the more effective if it is carefully calibrated to the extent of real change he is able to make. European leaders would do well to avoid repeating the over-reaction of many European leaders when Putin took over from the ailing Yeltsin in 2000. This time, they should not stare into his eyes and speculate about his soul; play closer attention to what he does, not what he says (whether liberal rhetoric or hardline talk designed to placate the siloviki); and take seriously Medvedev the lawyer's seemingly more than notional commitment to the rule of law.

The implications of a "Gazprom presidency" are far from clear, however. The ascension to power of the company's chairman should cement Russia's westward orientation - Gazprom's entire business model is based on vertical integration into European markets. But it also strengthens the interest of corporate power at the heart of the state.

The implication of the above is that the question about the probable course of a Dmitry Medvedev presidency requires a mix of caution and clarity. This may be, after all, only Russia’s second presidential transition since 1991; yet the parameters - if not the “rules” - of succession are now reasonably well-established. Russia's real transition is likely to come sometime after the election, but only when and if the new president begins to define the system, more than - as at present - being defined by it.

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