The smooth performance of the power-sharing mechanism connecting President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has given way to grinding and clanking as their recent statements betray deepening disagreements. Kremlin-watchers have long been puzzled about the lack of visible tensions between the co-rulers, despite the pain and panic of the economic crash, but now many are reluctant to assume the academic "I told you so" pose because the "it-will-pass" augury still appears probable (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 17). Medvedev has made increasingly bold and bitter assessments of the unfolding economic crisis, but his senior partner keeps correcting him -while showing no signs of irritation. A particular case that illustrates this pattern is the response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the planned deployment of a strategic radar in the Czech Republic and ten interceptor-missiles in Poland (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 17).
Medvedev immediately made a televised statement showing neither surprise nor disappointment about not receiving a telephone call from Obama, but expressing his satisfaction and readiness to "work together to develop effective measures against the risks of missile proliferation." The tone was sober and even solemn, but there was hardly any doubt that Medvedev acknowledged a major U.S. step towards meeting Russian demands and aimed at resolving the remaining issues in the strategic arms control talks (RIA-Novosti, September 18). In an interview with the Swiss media, he rejected any "primitive tit-for-tat," but promised to listen more attentively to the concerns of his U.S. partners.
Putin unequivocally dissented from this view. He was generous with his praise, calling Obama’s decision "correct and bold," but insisted that the U.S. should follow-up with the "abrogation of all limitations on cooperation with Russia" and with "stepped-up activities to expand the membership of the World Trade Organization with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan" (www.newsru.com, September 18). Bringing up the WTO issue in this context is rather odd, since Putin himself has derailed Russian accession negotiations by initiating -against Medvedev’s objections- a joint entry effort with Belarus and Kazakhstan (Vedomosti, August 12). More important, however, is the basic proposition that the U.S. has corrected one mistake among many and should keep up the good work, while Moscow does not owe Washington any reciprocity.
Medvedev has embarked upon a long trip that begins as a state visit to Switzerland, continues with an address to the U.N. General Assembly and proceeds further to the G20 summit in Pittsburg. He will have plentiful opportunities to elaborate on his thesis that "resentment, arrogance, various complexes, mistrust and especially hostility should be excluded from the relations between Russia and the leading democratic countries" (www.gazeta.ru, September 10). He will also have a meeting with Obama where the commitment to conclude a new agreement before the START I expires in December has to be confirmed or revised (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 18). With all the smiles and handshakes, each of Medvedev’s counterparts cannot avoid a suspicion that any promise would only become real if approved by his stern alter ego in Moscow.
By dropping the simple point that sometime closer to the presidential elections in 2012, they will sit together and decide who is going to run for the presidency, Putin has effectively reduced Medvedev to a "lame duck" quasi-leader (www.gazeta.ru, September 16). Medvedev’s clarification that he "dreams of nothing and excludes nothing" has not clarified anything, but his implicit consent to this "between the two of us" arrangement has effectively annulled all his pledges to uphold democratic institutions. He remains a typical apparatchik who has risen far above his station, and cannot comprehend that building a political base involves something more than cadre manipulation and winning public support requires moving beyond a professionally spun PR campaign.
What propels Medvedev to speak out against the system to which he belongs organically is the depth of the economic disaster that Russia has plunged into -but it is exactly here that his differences with Putin become more pronounced with every speech. Medvedev maintains that the crisis is helpful as an eye-opener, since it has revealed that the rent-extraction model is unsustainable, consequently it is necessary "to rethink life" and make "radical and firm decisions." Putin, on the contrary, argues that the economy is already out of the recession and "our cautious and probably excessively conservative forecasts suggest that upward trends will continue to prevail" (Kommersant, September 19). Economic statistics are in fact quite ambivalent, but many experts point out that neither of the three main drivers of the "miracle" of accelerated growth -steady rise of oil prices, inflow of cheap capital, and fast growth of domestic consumption- has regained momentum (Vremya Novostei, September 17; www.gazeta.ru, September 14). Putin’s government has provided life-support systems for many inefficient enterprises and dysfunctional companies, but this postponement of bankruptcies cannot continue indefinitely.
In his reassuring rhetoric, Putin connects effortlessly with the expectations within the vast bureaucratic apparatus and illusions in public opinion, while Medvedev spells out the worst suspicions of the desperate entrepreneurs and disgruntled consumers. Politically, the "things are improving" position is a sure winner, while the correct diagnosis of the spread of malignant tumors and metastases will not boost Medvedev’s popularity. Disheartened reformers are not going to flock to him unless he can prove that he means business -and whatever bold words he is putting in the final draft of the address to the Federal Assembly that is due to be delivered in mid-October, they are not going to be enough. Putin is certainly beyond reach and reproach, but there are three figures closely associated with him and performing the role of pillars for his regime: Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov (who had fancied himself as Putin’s successor before Medvedev’s promotion), Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (who is in charge of energy policies and intrigues), and the Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev (the former head of the Federal Security Service). If Medvedev dares to sack any of these three before delivering the address, the bureaucracy might begin to view him as a new master and the team of medvedevtsy could quickly shape up; if not -there is hardly much point for him in serving out the rest of his presidential term.