The first week of Vladimir Putin’s reinstated monopoly on power was marked by Dmitry Medvedev’s persistent attempts to prove that his presidency did not end on September 24, when he announced the “deeply thought-through decision” not to run for a second term. Medvedev demonstratively denigrated and fired the malcontent Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, observed large-scale military exercises in his commander-in-chief leather jacket and gave an unscheduled interview to three official TV channels. The key point of the latter was to provide a more convincing explanation for his downshifting than just sticking to the deal with Putin that had conditioned his unexpected promotion in late 2007 (Kommersant, October 1). Despite the carefully polished presentation of the “honest truth,” his reasoning is hardly satisfactory for those who had seen in his feeble leadership a chance for Russia’s soft modernization from above instead of a revolutionary crisis (Moskovsky Komsomolets, www.polit.ru, October 1).
The argument that Putin “is incontestably the politician with the most prominent standing in our country” holds some water, even if the approval ratings of the duo are statistically very close and are both sliding (www.gazeta.ru, September, 29). This argument, however, works against the proposal to grant Medvedev the dubious privilege to lead the United Russia party to a tightly controlled victory in the December elections, because this organization of the ruling bureaucracy has never been comfortable with Medvedev’s quasi-liberal discourse of “innovations” and may in fact experience a further decline in its artificially boosted popularity (The New Times, Moskovskiy Novosti, September 26). Medvedev tried to reinforce this argument by a strikingly odd comparison with the US: “Can you imagine a situation where Barack Obama, say, starts competing against Hillary Clinton? … They represent the same party, the Democratic Party, and their decisions were based on which candidate they thought would bring the best result. We made our decision in this same manner.” Russian commentators are at loss about where such a ridiculous idea might have come from (Ekho Moskvy, September 30).
What could make Medvedev’s much diminished authority slightly stronger is Putin’s promise to appoint him as the prime minister with a mandate to advance his “modernization” vision relying on support from United Russia, which wrapped up its congress without approving an electoral platform or a set of guidelines (www.gazeta.ru, September 30). Modernization might indeed be necessary, but Medvedev will have to balance this task against the challenge of deepening stagnation, which necessitates painful reforms of the pension system and communal services as well as revamping inefficient state monopolies (www.gazeta.ru, September 29). Kudrin is uncertain as to whether Medvedev is up to this challenge, but the former finance minister is quite sure that unpredictable petro-revenues will not cover a populist expansion of state expenditures, particularly on rearmament (Ekspert, September 26). Medvedev insists that Kudrin’s demarche is merely a case of “government discipline” but has to swallow his sarcastic gratitude for the “invaluable bureaucratic, political and personal experience acquired in the last couple of days” (Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, September 27).
Opting out of this political puppet-show, Kudrin has spoiled Medvedev’s declared intention to form “a thoroughly renewed government made up of new people.” Some old-timers, like Viktor Zubkov, and badly unpopular ministers, such as Vitaly Mutko, are set to be retired, but it is unlikely that Medvedev would have a free hand to gather his own team, much the same way as he has never had a chance to shape the presidential administration (www.rbc.ru, September 29). Putin is a master of cadre reshuffling, and some of his lieutenants, like Sergei Naryshkin, would probably follow Medvedev from the Kremlin to the White House on the Krasnopresnenskaya embankment. By and large, the upper middle part of the bureaucratic elites is worried about the economic stagnation but wants to see crisis management rather than a change of course and much prefers to control financial flows rather than to empower non-state agents of “modernization” (Vedomosti, September 30). Medvedev saw the joy of the huge forum at his consent to step down and understands that he can rely only on Putin’s goodwill to keep the job of prime minister; and this benevolence could evaporate if he tries to deliver on the pledges of decentralization and privatization.
Medvedev also has to tread very carefully in the remaining months of his quasi-presidency over foreign policy issues knowing that his senior partner is longing to return to the circuit of summits and top level tête-à-têtes. Post-Soviet autocrats from Belarus to Turkmenistan would actually prefer to deal with the real boss, but European politicians have to give up on their hopes that Medvedev’s easy-going style would mature into cooperative substance (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 28; Moskovskiy Novosti, September 26). It is probably the US that has invested most effort in cultivating ties with Medvedev, and now Putin might quietly rejoice at the disappointment in Washington. He would need, nevertheless, to revive the dialogue with the global power that occupies a dominant position on his mental map, and perhaps to advance his own “reset,” since Russia is interested in keeping nuclear arms control at the top of the agenda of international affairs. Toward this end, Putin might strengthen the role of his Security Council, which Medvedev has decreed earlier this year but has not acted on (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11). Sergei Ivanov, who swallowed bitter disappointment in late 2007, when Medvedev was made the pro-forma president, might be rewarded for his unwavering loyalty to Putin with a key position in the presidential administration or the Security Council, which he held in 2000.
Putin’s long-planned return to the position of supreme authority might appear to be triumphantly executed but in fact, the legitimacy of his power is seriously compromised because the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution is clearly violated (Novaya Gazeta, September 30). He may have developed a high opinion of his own leadership abilities, but Putin cannot avoid fears about showing weakness in comprehending the nature of the economic stagnation and in arresting the rot in his executive pyramid. Orchestrating Medvedev’s self-demotion marks the completion of his project for eliminating all alternatives to his super-presidency, but that does not make him the right man for the job of reversing Russia’s decline.