Russia belongs among the fast-growing emerging economies and to the Asia-Pacific region – that was the message that President Dmitry Medvedev tried to deliver at the summit of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russian, India, China and South Africa) and during the Boao Forum for Asia last week. Unlike at the Davos Forum, he made few efforts to court investors but asserted that Russia was firmly on the track of modernization and was ready to add value to its cooperation with China, India, Brazil and other ambitious “up-and-comers” (Kommersant, April 16). Nobody raised any objections but hardly anybody missed a peculiar turn of phrase in Medvedev’s interview with Chinese CCTV, where he admitted having different views to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on “the methods and ways to achieve this prosperity” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 14). Stretching the point further he explained to the confounded Chinese: “But this is what democracy is all about. This is what competition is all about. I have my own opinion, but someone else might have a slightly different one.”
Putin may care little about the meaning of democracy but he certainly understands what “competition” means, and he cannot tolerate being treated as “someone else.” The response was orchestrated as impromptu opinions of several apparatchiks of the United Russia party, who suggested that Putin as the leader of the party would be its preferred presidential candidate (Kommersant, April 15). Then Putin himself took the stage and told the party not to become over-excited about the presidential elections and to focus on the parliamentary campaign, so that its dominant majority in the State Duma would be secured (www.gazeta.ru, April 16). While Medvedev promised that the decision on his participation in the presidential contest would be taken shortly (he was careful though not to imply it was his decision to make), Putin has firmly established that it is too soon to decide and that “in the meantime, as I’ve already said, everybody should keep toiling on his or her own plot every day with the devotion and diligence worthy of St. Francis.”
Comparing the work ethics of Russian nomenklatura with St. Francis makes one suspect that Putin’s sense of humor is not always rude, but he has undercut Medvedev’s scurry most effectively. Every opportunistic bureaucrat has received a reminder that Putin is the decider, that he will announce the decision when the moment is right, and that time is not exactly on Medvedev’s side. This marshalling of minions is done so demonstratively that many experts, including the insightful Lilia Shevtsova, argue that the disagreements between Medvedev and Putin is just a game aimed at diverting discontent towards a false dilemma (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 8). The possibility of a real electoral competition between the duumvirs looks indeed close to zero (Vedomosti, April 14). Other experts maintain, nevertheless, that the construct of dual leadership has exhausted its usefulness and is malfunctioning under pressure (Moskovskiy Novosti, April 11).
Both opinions could in fact capture some parts of the real picture of political crisis developing beneath many layers of official propaganda but faster than either of the co-rulers is prepared to admit. The dynamics of this crisis is attentively examined in a recent report from the Center for Strategic Research, a mainstream think-tank traditionally close to the Ministry for Economic Development (Kommersant, March 29). The argument is built on the premise that trust in the current leadership is shrinking faster than economic factors could explain and cannot be restored without a “reset” of the political agenda (www.grani.ru, April 13). What Putin might like about this report is the opinion that Medvedev is unelectable unless his senior partner puts all his support behind him, which would be a waste of political capital. What Medvedev might like is the idea that an upgrade of discourse must come together with a rotation rather than a reshuffling of the top bureaucratic brass. What neither of them likes is the proposition that already in this parliamentary election, a new party representing the interests of Moscow’s middle class (with branches in other major urban centers) must be allowed to compete – and then become a part of the ruling coalition.
Putin has instead opted for taking personal control over the United Russia campaign making this party of bureaucracy into an electoral machine that would dominate the presidential contest reducing Medvedev’s solicitations for modernization to irrelevant noise. This machine, however, is generating much public disgust, so elections would involve manipulations on the Belarusian scale. A recent opinion poll showed that high approval ratings could be misleading: 27 percent of respondents want to see Putin’s name in the ballot, 18 percent prefer Medvedev, 16 percent would like to see both, but 25 percent prefer to have neither (www.levada.ru, April 13).
This brewing political crisis is not a secret for Russia’s international partners, who are broadly supportive of Medvedev’s aspirations but cannot put a high credibility mark on his smooth talking. The Chinese, for that matter, tend to measure very carefully their external ambitions against economic potential, so Russia’s persistent desire to claim a major role as if demographic decline, slow growth and capital flight are irrelevant can only be seen as a hollow pretence. Medvedev’s grand ideas on security architecture for the Asia-Pacific are about as convincing for the rising powers of the region as are his oscillations between approving and condemning the intervention in the Libyan civil war for NATO and its partners (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 15).
The visible estrangement between Putin and Medvedev does not add any flexibility to their common system of power based on corrupt symbiosis between bureaucracy and business. Superficial innovations, like the partial privatization of state companies that would no longer be under direct control of ministers, cannot change the fundamental incompatibility of this rent-extraction system with the urgent tasks of modernization (Novaya Gazeta, April 14).
Medvedev’s attempts at upgrading the language of politics could have been just empty talk but they resonate with the fast-spreading feeling that his modernization has no chance and Putin’s stability has no future. Putinism is set on track towards its complete de-legitimization through fraudulent quasi-elections, and the ideas about how to prevent its fiasco from becoming a state failure are resolutely turned down.