Russian Politics Turns Towards Putin’s New Presidency

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 21

During the past month, President Dmitry Medvedev has turned into a disappearing and irrelevant figure in the Russian political arena. His lame-duck status was established beyond any reasonable doubt by the unreasonably harsh verdict against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in late 2010 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 28). Medvedev’s performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week provided an illustration of a politician who travelled full circle from a hopeful candidate in 2007 to a failure shining through low-content rhetoric (, January 27). The Domodedovo bombing disrupted his plan to entice investors, but his claim that terrorists aimed to ensure “that the Russian president would not come to this forum” characterized by many Russian commentators as being genuinely preposterous (Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 27). Despite the lack of a plausible lead in the investigation, Medvedev’s attempt to demonstrate a resolute response to “the perpetrators and organizers of this monstrous crime,” was only just short of hopeless, while his “surprise inspection” of the Moscow metro, where a few pieces of security equipment were installed in one station just before his brief tour and disassembled afterwards, appeared to be fruitless and brought upon ridicule (Kommersant, January 28).

Journalists keep asking Medvedev about his intentions, but most politicians have started contemplating a more serious question: when Vladimir Putin reclaims the position of the supreme leader, who is going to take the significant post of prime minister? Medvedev is hardly the right man for the job, and such a reverse rotation would have looked odd at a time when it is imperative to solidify the legitimacy of the far from stable regime (Vedomosti, January 27; Kommersant-Vlast, January 17). The answer to the newly-looming question depends upon the outcome of the very probable reshuffling of the government.  In two years not a single minister has been replaced. Putin did change the government on the eve of the elections in 2003, and twice in 2007, and now has discovered the need to bring in some fresh ideas since the pre-crisis strategic guidelines make little sense (, 26 January). Experts, much like investors, may have a short memory of painful “corrections,” but the bureaucratic elephant never forgets.

The zigs-zags in political fortunes in Putin’s cabinet are already clearly visible. Sergei Ivanov, the main contender for the top job in 2007, probably hoped for a second chance, but the embarrassing setbacks over supervising the projects like Bulava (the missile for the new generation of strategic submarines) and GLONASS (satellite navigation system) have killed his comeback. Dmitry Kozak, who did an impressive job in the North Caucasus in the mid-2000’s, has disappeared in the crowd of government “back-benchers.” Aleksandr Khloponin, perhaps the most promising among the regional leaders, is stuck with the same hopeless task in the North Caucasus. Sergei Sobyanin used to be a key power-broker in Putin’s inner circle, but has not distinguished himself at all during the first 100 days in the high-profile position of Moscow’s Mayor (, January 28). First Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Shuvalov, is visible in the news-media but his prime responsibility for reforming the hopeless communal sector does not bode well for promotion.

One special case in these cut-throat intrigues is the Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, who unlike other siloviki, has initiated and stubbornly executed radical reforms in the armed forces against the open sabotage by the top brass (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 11). One crucial issue where Serdyukov has been unable to overcome this resistance is the tightening of the conscription system, which leads not only to falling combat worthiness of the “new-look” brigades but also to rising social tensions, particularly among students (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 17). Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliev, and the Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, are set to keep their jobs despite the failure to contain terrorism, but Serdyukov is perfectly placed to become a scape-goat (, January 28). Serdyukov’s father-in-law, Viktor Zubkov, could also be eased from the position of First Deputy Prime Minister (and the chair of Gazprom’s board) into well-deserved retirement.

Among Putin’s trusted lieutenants only one is definitely on the rise – Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. Indeed, Sechin directed the negotiations that resulted in an exchange of shares and the forging of a strategic alliance between Rosneft and BP.  In doing so, he secured proper international respectability despite being deeply implicated in the looting of assets of the dubiously bankrupted Yukos (The New Times, Ekspert, January 24). It was Sechin, and not the disfavored Ivanov, who went to Paris to sign the long-discussed contract on building two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for the Russian Navy (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 21). It was the same Sechin who of all the smooth-talking Russian “envoys” at the Davos forum produced the most memorable sound-bite answering the question about Khodorkovsky’s travails: “Killers and crooks are behind bars, the mess is sorted out, the rules of the game are set, and that is what matters for investors” (, Vedomosti, January 26). Russian bloggers are now making jokes about Sechin’s visibly slimmer appearance reflecting on Medvedev, who had also lost baby-fat before the surprise nomination in 2007 (, January 27).
Medvedev may be the only person in the corridors of the Kremlin who is not aware that the “heart-to-heart” talk that Putin had promised for finalizing the decision about the next presidency has already taken place – but without him being present. Putin, Sechin and whoever else is “in the know” appear, however, equally unaware that this fool-proof method of selecting the boss for the next six years may be disappointing for large parts of the bureaucratic and business elites while insulting the electorate. In every politically meaningful social group there is a strong preference for stability and a longing for the “golden time” of the mid-2000’s, when incomes were rising and terrorism was declining. There is also a growing realization that a new edition of “Putin’s plan” from 2007 could not reproduce that stability based on generous distribution and shameless stealing of petro-revenues. Putin’s grip on and lust for power are undiminished but the ranks of followers of his lead to nowhere are shrinking.