The procedure of reporting to the State Duma on the government’s performance is meant to be a tough examination, but Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, turned it into an exhibition of the success of his leadership –which had allegedly delivered Russia from the economic crisis and would take it to new strengths. He elaborated at great length about the “unprecedented anti-crisis program” implemented by the government in 2009 and declared that “the recession has indeed departed” (www.gazeta.ru, April 20). The well-disciplined parliamentarians from the pseudo-opposition parties raised a few questions that fit perfectly with Putin’s unmistakably Soviet bottom-line: “We hold that the goals we have set for ourselves are realistic. We know how to achieve them and we believe in success.”
Putin promised that growth in 2010 would be stronger than the planned 3.1 percent and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently increased its forecast for Russia to 4.2 percent (Vremya Novostei, April 22). In real terms, it means a rather slow recovery after the 7.9 percent contraction in 2009, particularly since the IMF expects only 3.3 percent growth in 2011. Many experts, including Evgeny Yasin, the doyen of Russian economists, insist that the crisis is not over and that the key parameter is weak investment activity, which remains in the “negative territory” even compared with the very low base of 2009 (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 22). The construction of new houses, which is the best indicator of economic health, was down 8.3 percent in the first quarter from the same period of 2009, and the figure for March reached 20.8 percent (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). Experts also predict that the cuts in transfers from the deficit-ridden federal budget to the already indebted regions would push tariffs for utilities up and curtail many social programs (www.newsru.com, April 22).
It was obviously not the dry and dubious statistics that was underpinning Putin’s demonstrative confidence, but the matured conclusion that despite the pain of the recession neither the political class nor the general public wants any change. He, therefore, distinctly toned down the rhetoric of “modernization-innovation” and shifted the emphasis back to the discourse of “stability-prosperity.” This small change of style signifies the tightening of control over the political agenda, and Putin accentuated this message by making more than usual first-person points: “I am adamant that… I am satisfied with… I personally helped write it. I even invented the name, Maternity Capital” (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 21). Vying clans of oligarchs and courtiers must be in no doubt who the “decider” is, but more importantly, Putin has thus indicated that the most crucial decision has been made.
President, Dmitry Medvedev, expressed surprise that American experts did not ask him about the 2012 presidential elections during the questions and answer session at the Brookings Institution, but when Aftenposten (April 23) raised this question on the eve of his visit to Norway, his answer was even more equivocal than before: “If it will help to maintain the direction forged in the recent years, over Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms, as well as my own, then I am not crossing out any options.” This opaque reasoning goes directly against the argument of those Russian liberals who still pin their hopes on Medvedev and maintain that his “modernization” is the only politically possible alternative to Putin’s course towards “more of the same” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 5).
Putin, however, also understands that Medvedev re-elected in 2012 for a second presidential term of six years would have much greater freedom to execute his own agenda. So far, he has not fired a single high-level official even in his own administration, not to mention Putin’s government, so the last two years are the period of highest cadre stability in Russia’s post-Soviet history (www.gazeta.ru, April 20). Putin is not inclined to grant Medvedev any chance to “grow in the job” and gain the ability to build his own team, because that can only be done by expelling loyalists of the eclipsed boss.
One area where Putin has deliberately demonstrated his decisive influence in recent weeks is foreign policy, which is supposed to be a presidential domain. Medvedev’s state visit to Argentina attracted less attention than Putin’s visit to Venezuela and back-slapping with his old friend Hugo Chavez. It was Putin who has occupied the center stage in the Russian-Polish rapprochement fostered by the tragic death of President, Lech Kaczynski, in the plane crash that claimed 96 lives. Putin also played the key role in defining the course towards the revolution in Kyrgyzstan –against the pattern of firmly opposing the “color events” – granting crucial support to the new government (www.gazeta.ru, April 22). Medvedev partook in the ceremony of beginning the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline, but Putin went to Austria to finalize the multi-partner arrangement for building the far more controversial South Stream (RIA Novosti, April 24).
It does not take much effort to reduce Medvedev to the supporting role of pretending to be a commander-in-chief. The problem that Putin refuses to see is that his very possible return to the summit of power would amount not to a restoration of a “natural” bureaucratic order, but to a major setback in Russia’s lagging political modernization (Vedomosti, April 21). One part of this problem is the economic dead-end of the petro-state model, which even based on the current historically high level of oil prices can satisfy neither the appetite of predatory bureaucracy nor the needs of the socially dependent “under-class” (www.gazeta.ru, April 19).
This lack of economic perspective cannot be hidden by Putin’s reassuring collective therapy or dodged by promoting technical innovations that are inorganic to the rigid rent-seeking political system. The functioning duumvirate inevitably undermines the integrity of this pyramid and the slackening of control over the media, determined by the explosive growth of the internet, adds to this erosion. An attempt to restore this integrity by returning the “national leader” to his natural place cannot be successful due to massive corruption in his core power base and very probable defection, including by emigration, of the crucially important minority of politicians and entrepreneurs still engaged in the ungrateful task of keeping Russia on the track of “Europeanization.”