President Dmitry Medvedev has recently made several cadre decisions and political moves aimed at asserting his authority over the bureaucratic machine. Some of them fall disappointingly short of meeting demands sharpened by the economic recession; others are accurately subverted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The meeting of the State Council last Friday was organized to signify a commitment to proceed towards “a modern political system we would not be ashamed of,” in Medvedev’s words (the official translation says “of which we can all be proud”). Putin, however, cut short the criticism asserting that “healthy conservatism” should be the guideline for changes and that the “Ukrainization” of Russia’s political system should be firmly prevented (Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 22).
The far-reaching move that was supposed to prove the seriousness of Medvedev’s intentions was in splitting the Southern Federal District into two parts and the appointment of Aleksandr Khloponin, the former governor of the Krasnoyarsk kray, as the head of the newly-formed North Caucasus Federal District (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, www.gazeta.ru, January 21). The security situation in such trouble spots as Dagestan or Ingushetia has dangerously deteriorated, and some Russian analysts find it encouraging that instead of opting for forceful methods of suppression, Medvedev has appointed an outsider who excels in managing business conflicts (RIA-Novosti, January 21). It is, nevertheless, very doubtful that Khloponin, who would not have additional resources to distribute or personal networks to rely upon, will be able to pacify the wars between corrupt clans and to check the growth of religious extremism.
Seeking to boost the authority of his envoy, Medvedev also made him a deputy prime minister, but that means that Khloponin will have to take orders from Putin, who has always preferred military “solutions” and has empowered Ramzan Kadyrov, the ambitious ruler of Chechnya (www.grani.ru, January 20). What is particularly important for Putin is that the Krasnodar kray, where the Sochi Olympic project is on the horizon, is now administratively separate from the troubled North Caucasus (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 22). The main problem with the Olympic construction work, however, is not the spill-over of instability but corruption, which is shocking even by Russian standards, so that multi-billion investments are washed away by an average seasonal storm (Vremya Novostei, December 22).
Declaring his resolve to concentrate on the economic problems of the North Caucasus, Medvedev probably suspects that they are intractable for the foreseeable future owing to the serious shortage of investment capital in Russia. These suspicions dictate the orders for increasing the strength of the military grouping deployed in the North Caucasus (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 12). The real combat readiness of these units is, however, on the ebb as radical reforms unleashed by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov take their toll. Grumbling in the ranks has turned into open discontent, so Medvedev has to resort to new rounds of purges among the top brass, including, last week, General Sergei Makarov, the commander of the North Caucasus military district and a decorated hero of the war with Georgia (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, January 22). Putin prefers to stay clear of these controversies and only promises to increase deliveries of modern weapon systems to the army, while visiting various defense plants, the same promises he started to make back in 2000 learning the first tricks of the president’s job (Kommersant, January 19).
The accomplishments and calamities of the military reform, which is –rather surprisingly– the only real reform currently underway, attract scant attention in society, except perhaps for the tens of thousands of male students who face the prospect of being drafted as soldiers after graduation. What does capture public attention is the dangerous degradation of the law enforcement system, as every week brings new cases of police violence and corruption. Last week, the editors of two dozen newspapers and news agencies published a collective appeal to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, demanding measures that would stop the abuse of power against journalists covered by widespread falsification of evidence (Novaya Gazeta, January 22). Some heads have rolled, like that of General Viktor Grechman, the chief of the Tomsk oblast interior department, but Nurgaliev’s many confident statements about persecuting “bad cops” have failed to reassure an outraged public (Kommersant, January 22). Medvedev’s own decree on reforming the interior ministry is way too timid, but he dares not to replace Nurgaliev, a faithful Putin’s loyalist, with experienced Sergei Stepashin, who is singled out as the right man for the job by the media (Ekho Moskvy, Vedomosti, January 22).
Medvedev’s attempts to prove the seriousness of his grand strategy of “modernization” with small steps and opening a bit of space for public debates are clearly not working, as the bureaucracy shrugs off irrelevant criticism and grows convinced that their nominal master does not really have what it takes to execute control. Putin used to relish directing and manipulating every lever in the machinery of power, but now his exercises in “manual management” serve only the purpose of demonstrating that he is still the boss. The thrill of control is gone, so his barely concealed intention to return to the summit of power comes more from the conviction that he belongs there, than from any urge to lead Russia to its allegedly due greatness. His deliberate undercutting of Medvedev’s fledgling ambitions to set a new course betrays a natural desire to cut the former underling to his real size, rather than a commitment to preserve the status quo (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 21).
It might seem that the disorganization in the system of governance, most clearly seen in the criminalization of the police, is caused by the conflicting orders from the top. In fact, however, neither modernization can be advanced against the resistance of a deeply corrupt bureaucracy, nor is “more-of-the-same” an option, due to the shrinking volume of resource rent. The Putin-Medvedev duumvirate offers a bit of both, and this combination of new wine and old wineskins appears to offer an escape from the dilemma of two bad choices. This easy way out, however, merely allows the rot to deepen in the foundation of the Russian state, which is obsessed with deleting tragic mistakes from its own history and dodging any effort to learn.