Does Medvedev have a Roving Eye?

Law professor and Russia scholar Ethan Burger and his colleague Mary Holland, writing on the Foreign Policy website, wonder whether Dima Medvedev has a roving eye:

When Vladimir Putin stepped down as president of Russia last May, he left little to chance. Just as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had anointed him, Putin made sure that his loyal protégé of 20 years, Dmitry Medvedev, would take his place. Putin took the helm of the country’s dominant political party, United Russia, and then, as prime minister, expanded that position far beyond what the Constitution envisions. Although Putin rearranged the musical chairs, he continued to call the tune. Until now.

So long as Russia’s oil-fueled prosperity soared, people accepted Putin’s implicit bargain: government corruption and constricted civil rights in exchange for rising living standards. But today, with Russia’s economy in shambles, this social contract is fraying. Ordinary Russians are already taking to the streets demanding the type of change Putin is unlikely to deliver. He epitomizes the KGB old guard who got Russia into this mess. Sooner or later, he will become the Russian financial crash’s most prominent victim.

Medvedev, a lawyer by training and instinct, offers perhaps the only realistic hope of turning Russia around, but he can’t operate freely while Putin is still effectively in charge. Seemingly aware of this, Medvedev has, in recent weeks, taken steps to distance himself from his mentor and might be setting the stage to force him out of government.

When Medvedev became president in May 2008, the world economic situation seemed stable. Oil was more than $140 a barrel and Russian political leaders were riding high. With living standards rising for most Russians, political elites enjoyed the luxury of not having to make hard choices.

By late 2008, though, the global financial crisis was in full swing. The Russian leadership was slow to grasp it, blaming the West for its profligacy and suggesting that Russia would be immune. Soon, however, the country experienced a triple shock: oil dipped below $40 a barrel, demand for Russian exports sank precipitously, and Western financial institutions began calling in their loans.

By February 2009, the ruble had depreciated to 36 rubles to the dollar, illustrating the ongoing loss of faith in the Russian economy. As a result, the cost of dollar-denominated imports increased substantially. The official unemployment rate hit 8.1 percent, and most observers project further increases in the near term. Not surprisingly, public approval of the country’s political leadership fell. Although public opinion polls do not yet show massive discontent or unrest, they do show a pronounced downward shift.

Medvedev has always styled himself as something of a reformer. As the crisis has worsened, the president has been especially careful to distance himself from Putin. Policy differences between the two men — on the response to the financial crisis, the locus of prosecutorial power, the use of force against protesters, the tenure of judges in the courts, and the definition of treason, among others — are serious and growing.

The stylistic gap is also expanding. Medvedev has made official statements on the assassinations of human rights advocates Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, and Anastasia Baburova that differ markedly in tone and substance from Putin’s responses. Medvedev strikes a different, less nationalistic, and more tolerant tone than Putin on questions of Islam and national security.

These differences are fundamental to each man’s character. Putin, after all, is the product of the KGB, the government-sanctioned plutocracy, and the Cold War. Medvedev is the son of the Russian intelligentsia, the legal academy, and the post-Soviet world of global integration and opportunity. Although they have worked closely together for 20 years, they are quite different, and in the context of a political rivalry, have different constituencies.

Russians have noticed the widening split. In February, the weekly business publication Kommersant-Vlast printed a collection of opinions titled “Will Medvedev Sack Putin? Is It Time for Prime Minister Putin to Answer for Results of Anti-Crisis Efforts?” Although the discussion does not provide a definitive answer, simply posing the question is provocative in a country where the government has muzzled the press for years. Meanwhile, Medvedev’s popularity is growing. According to a February 2009 national survey, 73 percent of those polled said they trust him, compared with 56 percent in 2006. Although it is impossible to predict what will happen, one thing is certain: The current power dynamic is shifting, and shifting fast. If the trend continues, Medvedev will undoubtedly begin asking himself why he is still playing second fiddle.

Of course, it’s one thing to make soothing reformist noises; capitalizing on the resulting public accolades is quite another. The prime minister is undoubtedly a cunning adversary, but he does have vulnerabilities. For instance, Medvedev could be laying the groundwork for a move against Putin by making his war on “legal nihilism” and corruption the centerpiece of his domestic policy. In May 2008, he started a campaign to create new laws and structures against corruption. This is nothing new, every Russian leader publicly reviles corruption while doing little or nothing to check it, if not in fact reveling in it.

In the Putin era, though, the scale of corruption has mushroomed without any real oversight from law enforcement, the legislature, the media, or civil society. What’s more, the prime minister and his closest allies are implicated. Stanislav Belkovsky, the Russian political analyst and insider, gave sensational interviews in November 2007 to Die Welt and The Guardian, stating that Putin was worth approximately $40 billion. He said Putin was the beneficial owner of 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz ($18 billion), 4.5 percent of Gazprom ($13 billion), and half of a Swiss-based oil-trading company Gunvor ($10 billion), run by a former St. Petersburg KGB agent. If true, this fortune would make Putin one of the richest people in Europe and probably the world. It would also make him one of the most corrupt. While in good economic times most Russians were content to look the other way, in these bad times, they may demand more accountability.

So for Medvedev, the new anticorruption law, which he shepherded through the Duma in December 2008, presents a potential opportunity to intimidate Putin and his supporters. The legislation prohibits conflicts of interest, requires government workers to report income and property, and mandates them to report on coworker noncompliance. It is tailor-made for a behind-the-scenes assault on Putin’s power and legitimacy. Most of Putin’s friends and allies throughout government and major corporations would no doubt find it challenging to provide full asset disclosure and transparency about conflicts of interest. With a new anticorruption law in his arsenal, Medvedev has a weapon of choice.

Although legislators attempted to water down certain provisions and postpone the law’s taking force, Medvedev prevented substantive changes to the legislation. Medvedev’s visible, personal involvement in this anticorruption effort suggests that it may be different from past shams.

On the personnel front, Medvedev is also distinguishing himself from Putin, appointing 1,000 new top managers to fill key government positions. This recruitment drive, announced last summer, is a response to the difficulties the state is facing in identifying and recruiting competent personnel for public service. It also highlights the lack of a proper recruitment system for government posts and the need for a new generation of managers to replace the Soviet era nomenklatura.

Notably, Medvedev has reached out to communists, nationalists, and liberals alike to create the pool of potential applicants rather than giving preference to United Russia. Although some of the “Golden 1,000” were prominent during Putin’s presidency, the list does not appear to contain close Putin advisors. With these appointments, Medvedev is placing himself at the vanguard of a generational shift in Russia’s political leadership.

Interestingly, Putin may have sealed his own fate years ago by establishing a legal precedent for his own ouster. Shortly after Yeltsin transferred temporary presidential responsibilities to Putin on December 31, 1999, Putin issued Presidential Decree 1763, granting Yeltsin and his family lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution, administrative sanction, arrest, detention, and interrogation. If push comes to shove, it’s not far-fetched to imagine Medvedev offering the very same arrangement to Putin.

If the two leaders cannot work out a quiet deal, then Medvedev might decide to use the new anticorruption law against a proxy. He would likely choose someone reasonably close to Putin with a similar KGB or law enforcement background: in Russian parlance, a silovik. The government would prosecute a current or former official for failure to disclose accurate income and asset statements, report subordinate noncompliance, or identify conflicts of interest. Once the government started such a prosecution for corruption, the message to Putin supporters would be clear: Watch out or you could be next.

Why would Medvedev turn on his political godfather? For political survival for the government, himself, and even Putin. Unless there is some fall guy for Russia’s economic fiasco, the whole regime could topple. Counting on Russians’ weariness with tumult and revolution, Medvedev may hope that dumping Putin will be enough to keep the system intact.

The time is close when Medvedev is likely to offer Putin a deal he can’t refuse. This true power shift, unlike the symbolic one last May, might be Russia’s best hope to navigate peacefully its deepening economic and political crisis.

10 responses to “Does Medvedev have a Roving Eye?

  1. Medvedev is a lesser snake. He may not be a FSB graduate, but, the still own him. Even if you stripped Putin’s faction out of the Kremlin, Russia still won’t make an about turn towards an open free democracy. A poll taken among the young found them as cynical of capitalism and democracy as their sovok grandparents.

    Obviously the Medvedev siloviki faction can smell a change in Putin’s fortunes. If I was Putin I’d spend some of his personal fortune on hiring food tasters.

    Take note when Medvedev’s goon squad replaces Putin’s goon squad trolling here.

  2. Medvedev is not a snake, just a typical vermin.
    None of this will mean much, as Putin controls the street. Medvedev can still be denounced. Courts or laws are no help in RaSSiya. Putin can still run for president, as he retired early and Legally by “Russian Law”. Medvedev is no different than any of Kadyrow’s partners in the way they ended up. The reason, Putin put him there as, Putin’s thinking goes. Medvedev is sufficiently scared of him. The reason being that there is no opposition to turn to. Just bites, don’t it?

  3. With all due respect, the article looks very perfunctory, if not amateurish. It’s oversimplifying the situation in Russia. There is a fierce palace battle going on; sometimes you can see the splashes outside as well.

    In the 70-s American Kremlenologists were watching the pecking order on the Mausoleum during parades, and made far-reaching conclusions. Today the situation is much more brutal and much more unpredictable.

    In his desire to simplify things Mr Burger sometimes comes to ridiculous conclusions. “The Golden 1,000” doesn’t include close Putin advisors by design as it lists future Russian leader (similar to American corporate succession plan). Same with anti-corruption laws. It can be directed to Putin, Chichvarkin, or Khodorkovsky – Medvedev’s empty rhetoric doesn’t mean much.

    In short, LR editorials are much more incisive – no need to water down the site with such bland “Cliff notes”.


    Take note when Medvedev’s goon squad replaces Putin’s goon squad trolling here.

    Actually, it’s already happening. Not here yet, but ultra-nationalist Prohanov’s newspaper Zavtra (“Tomorrow”) starts to put more and more blame on Putin, and encouraging Medvedev to “clean the house”

  4. If Medvedev’s friends are Assad, Ahmadjian, and Chavez, and Not Saakashvilli, then there is little hope this guy will be anything but positive for Russia.

  5. Felix,
    I think you are right. No one in their right mind would want to get on Putin’s wrong side. It would be a good way to ‘wake up dead’. He’s the head of a vast array of KGB/FSB thugs which are well paid and also know the price of disloyalty.

    • I agree with you, but, then wonder what’s been keeping Khodorkovsky alive over the years? Putin loathes him, it’s a very personal vendetta. Serious compromat on Putin sitting in a vault somewhere? Fear of galvanizing liberal sympathizers? The international response?

      That to me is the litmus test as to how far Putin will go. It is amazing the man is still alive.

      Felix, I’d love to hear your opinion on that.

      • Good point about Khodorkovsky. Maybe he has some Swiss bank accounts or something of serious value that he hasn’t devulged/given up? For a high roller like him, rotting in a Russian prison is probably worse than death. Can only speculate.

        • I don’t think a Swiss bank account is a factor in his staying alive. And, I don’t begrudge the man his wealth or what’s left of it. I think that strong international interest is the only thing keeping him alive.

          So far Putin hasn’t crossed the Stalin “no man, no problem” solution and murdered him. It’s why I suggested his fate is a litmus test on how far into lawlessness Putin will venture.

          • Putin is just playing “cat & mouse” with Khordokovsky, and is using him as an example to other oligarchs, once his usefulness in this regard is over, he will be disposed of quietly and probably very painfully.

  6. Greetings:

    I welcome your comments on Mary Holland’s and my piece that appeared in Foreign Policy On-Line recently.

    As a preliminary matter, let me mention that the article represents a heavily excerpted version of a much longer piece — originally written as a prospective law review or other academic article. Given the rapidly changing situation in Russia and the delays in publishing in academic journals or in books, we ultimately chose to prepare a short piece for an audience having a general interest in foreign policy since our earlier works this academic year appearing in Columbia Journal of East European Law and Demokratizatsia had limited readerships. Hence, the “Cliff Notes” quality of the discussion for those who closely follow developments in Russia.

    In our article, we sought to emphasize how “law” is used for political purposes in Russia (today as well as in the past). We find it interesting that despite the situation in Russia since 1992 (and the Soviet Union before that), the powers that be feel compelled to invoke law (even if in contravention to the written law) to legitimate their actions. This is very much like the situation, as Andrew Wilson pointed out, where authoritarian states feel it necessary to hold elections, even though the voting process is primarily for show.

    The global economic crisis is stirring things up in Russia. Not only will it lead to intra-elite conflict, it is having an impact on the thinking of (i) young Russian adults — who have high rates of unemployment, (ii) middle-aged Russians — who had expected the quality of life would continue to improve under the current system, and (iii) regional elites (not having a national security background) — who have seen both their wealth and power decline during the post-Yeltsin years. This seems to be giving rise to a dynamic situation.

    We are not soothsayers — rather we are merely observers of Russia, trained in the law who are struck by the non-uniformity of opinion expressed in the Russian press today.

    Furthermore, we have not rejected the view of certain specialists that persons who formerly held positions in the Russian security apparatus (FSB, MVD, etc.) have consolidated their power in the regions to a sufficient degree that they collectively will not permit Prime Minister Putin to step aside as it will jeopardize their positions.

    Irrespective of one’s views, there is no denying that the drop in the value of the Russian stock market followed by the global financial crisis have had real economic and political ramifications for Russia. Commodity prices have plummeted. Overleveraged oligarchs, politicians, and other economic actors no doubt will seek to achieve political outcomes that preserve their positions. We think the scenario we presented is the most likely one to come about over time.


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