Cracks in the Tandem’s Frame
Gazeta.ru — 25 August 2008
by Vladimir Milov*
Translated from the Russian by Dave Essel
The Russo-Georgian conflict has still further confused observers as to the state the Putin-Medvedev tandem is in. One should particularly note two main tendencies of the last fortnight. Premier Putin has, following his loud speeches about the politics of the conflict at its start in Vladikavkaz on 9 August, has completely ceased to appear in public or to comment on the situation. Instead, he recently chaired a meeting to discuss Russian development up to 2020 which looked at such matters as plans for education and science and the creation of competition. He has not become involved publicly in anything to do with the conflict. Putin’s only overt activity was to discuss the allocation of humanitarian aid and provision of funds for the restoration of South Ossetia’s war-damaged infrastructure.
Putin’s demonstrative self-alienation from the events in Georgia looks very odd indeed. After all, many experts consider him to the evident initiator of the military preparations in the Russo-Georgian conflict zone over the last few months and the protagonist with a personal interest in régime change in Georgia – because that is what could well have been the main hidden aim of Russia big-time invasion of Georgia along with having a war as a personal project to increase his political power and influence. Putin’s silence therefore stands out in more striking contrast since it was he who, in the first hours and days of the war, seemed far more assured than Medvedev and appeared to be the person in charge of the situation.
Today, however, the protagonist is indubitably Dmitri Medvedev who up until this time was being literally written off by analysts as a figurehead president under the real leader Putin. This in an interesting role change for Medvedev. When he was declared Putin’s successor for the post of president, he was being groomed as the ‘stability president’ for a country with a growing economy, a totally subjugated press, and no external threats. Now Medvedev finds himself in a radically different position, facing a complex and unpredictable situation.
Russia has engaged itself for the first time in a long while in a serious armed conflict that has led to a sharp escalation of tension in its relations with the West and indeed to a mass of contradictions in its relations with its closest CIS allies.
Medvedev has had not only to personally extend his blessing to the invasion of Georgia, an act that cannot even with maximum charity be called legally in the clear* but also to make undertakings to international leaders concerning conditions for a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops.
* Breaches include: Article 102 of the Constitution (“The jurisdiction of the Federation Council shall include: [..] d) making decisions on the possibility of the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation outside the territory of the Russian Federation […]); the Dagomys Agreement of 1992 [TN: regulating the ceasefire after the first conflict, signed by Yeltsin and Shevardnadze]; of agreements with the Ukraine regulating the use of vessels of the Black Sea Fleet; not to mention, of course, the UN Charter and so on.
These are not actions for the sort of nominal president which many observers thought Medvedev was going to be. The mere fact that he has held talks with Sarkozy and Merkel now puts him in the role of real president who has to make undertakings and answer for their fulfilment.
It would be naive to think that such summit meetings can be arranged with Medvedev as the marionette mouthing Putin’s off-stage words. No, Medvedev must have held these dialogues on his own.
In carrying out the undertakings he had made, Medvedev came directly up against sabotage and the dysfunctionality of the ‘vertical of power’. It is difficult to say to what extent Medvedev himself was honest in his agreements; it cannot be excluded that he inclined to war and considered the peace agreements to be just a way to get some tactical breathing space. It is clear, however, that the ‘power vertical’ does not carry out commands well. Even if this is partly because Medvedev himself is secretly giving instructions not to hurry with troop withdrawal, one can nonetheless discern that at least some of the individual but important elements of the ‘power vertical’ do not recognise Medvedev as their boss.
The ‘tandemocracy’ created to run the country in conditions of calm is leading to major problems in a time of crisis.
That said, one would be wrong to give serious consideration to talk of there existing a ‘third force’ or ‘sub-rosa war party’ that is actively influencing decision-making. None of the partisans of this idea has been able to convincingly name any names. The armed forces, which have had to put up with some serious strikes against them – the nomination of Anatoly Serdyukov to the Ministry of Defence and the dismissal of Yuri Baluyevsky – in recent years? The new leadership of the FSB, whose power and influence cannot be compared to what it was back in Nikolai Patrushev’s time? General Staff spokesman Nogovitsyn, appointed only a little over a month ago?
The likelihood is that we are simply having to deal with a system which, after initial orders were given by Putin, is simply not working too well, doesn’t know whose commands to obey in a muddled government, and is therefore taking the opportunity to settle some tactical problems of its own at the same time.
Be that as it may, the troop withdrawal is not being carried out with any alacrity and the peace agreements themselves are at risk because of Russia’s refusal to withdraw its supplementary forces from South Ossetia, which our government seems to have de facto ceased to consider a part of Georgia. The non-fulfilment of the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreements has already drawn criticism from Western leaders. If Moscow decides to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this will be followed by a new wave of Western displeasure and attempts to interfere in the situation.
And now Medvedev is going to have to deal with this personally. In the blink of eye he has had to wave good-bye to his cosy role of ‘English queen’ in a relatively calm and wealthy country and involve himself at the helm of the management of a complex crisis. Furthermore, Putin has shown him no public support in this.
I don’t think that Medvedev can be happy with this situation. Even if he is personally against the Georgian leaders and their policies, he would probably not, given his own say, have got involved in a war of the kind that has taken place. Medvedev, unlike Putin, does not feel in any way that he is in competition with Saakashvili and does not feel the need to revenge himself for the latter’s ‘disobedience’ in recent years. Medvedev therefore finds himself suffering the consequences of a conflict he did not start within a two-headed power system in which he lacks sufficient authority and governing power.
What does Putin’s silence and the fact that he has let go of the reins mean? One explanation could be that Putin, having realised his Blitzkrieg into Georgia is failing, has decided to distance himself from its running and stay in the shadows. In this respect it is important to note that the Western powers, having understood that Moscow’s hidden purpose might be the toppling of Saakashvili, quickly mounted a 24-hour ‘living shield’ around him with one top leader after another standing at his side in Tbilisi.
In that situation, a ‘march on Tbilisi’ became unrealistic. There was not in any case much point in continuing the war and Putin let the whole thing drop, leaving Medvedev to deal with the unpleasant matter of finding a political way out of the crisis and hold the international negotiations.
If that is the case, this is certain to open a crack in Putin and Medvedev’s relations. It is only in calm times that one can cheerfully blather about “Putin and Medvedev will always understand each other, after all, they’ve worked together for 17 years”. Everything changes in a crisis. Putin, who wants only to maintain control over the situation while refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, may well find that he made Medvedev into a serious enemy for himself. It may well be that the nature of the relationship between them is going to change a great deal faster than either of them expected.
*Vladimir Milov is a former Russian government official and is co-author of the Nemstov White Paper.