As it happens all too often in Russian rumor-ridden politics, news that is taken seriously comes from abroad, and the Reuters analysis on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s newly-crystallized intention to return to the Kremlin made a stronger impression than most half-informed speculations (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 28; www.inosmi.ru, July 27). His heavy-handed involvement in building the so-called “People’s Front” around the United Russia party has been demonstratively unilateral, and his disappointment in President Dmitry Medvedev’s performance is all too clear, but Reuters’ sources named a reason that has really driven the point home: that is what he really wants (www.grani.ru, July 28). The intrigue created by ambiguous statements of the two co-rulers about their joint decision-making at the right moment informed by the best interests of the country has been abruptly terminated, and Putin’s third six year-long presidential term has become a pre-determined fact of life.
One immediate response was given by Igor Yurgens and Yevgeny Gontmakher, the leaders of Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), who argued that Medvedev could not deny responsibility for implementing his modernization program and had to cross his personal Rubicon (Vedomosti, July 27; Ekho Moskvy, July 30). They assert that Putin’s move back to the presidential office would result in a fast deterioration of the economic situation instead of promised stability and that will require severe repression against rising discontent, which amounts to a national catastrophe. There is a distinctly desperate tone to this analysis, but Gleb Pavlovsky, a well-known Kremlin court insider, argues in a dispassionate manner that the “tandem” has become dysfunctional but maintains uncertainty about the elections in order to camouflage the lack of a common political platform (Vedomosti, July 29). The problem is not that the two men cannot agree on optimal aims and goals but that the ownership of power is the only goal, and nobody is prepared to give up his share of this property unless forced to.
Medvedev has little control over the financial flows generated by this ownership, so Putin does not really perceive him as a contender –merely a talking head that has developed some undue pretensions (Novaya Gazeta, July 21). His plan for the new presidency quite probably includes some reforms and he presents Pyotr Stolypin, a conservative reformer who managed Russia’s modernization at the start of the twentieth century, as his role model (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 28). He probably does not understand how limited his options really are by the sum total of his commitments to “special friends” and by the well-informed mistrust in his motives in the active part of the society, which is conveniently hidden by the carefully censored opinion polls (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 29).
As for Medvedev, he cuts a thoroughly unconvincing figure to pin any hopes on, so there is not much response to the INSOR campaign for rallying support. The strong and sustained outpouring of capital, which Pavlovsky calls the “price of uncertainty,” undermines the modernization vision, which requires a leap of investment in innovations, while for Putin’s stability, the flight of money and people means merely a drain of the pool of discontent. Medvedev tries to keep his show on the road and generate positive impressions; addressing a meeting of judges he praised their role in improving the investment climate and criticized the government for sabotaging his initiatives in modernizing the juridical system (Kommersant, July 27; Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 28).
It is exactly in Medvedev’s helplessness in getting the courts in a semblance of order that disqualifies him most in the eyes of potential supporters, and last week brought yet more evidence of that when the parole plea of Platon Lebedev, the closest associate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was turned down. The court proceedings were so blatantly rigged that even Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, who had been inclined to give Medvedev the benefit of the doubt, says that he has lost all hope (Ekho Moskvy, July 28; Novaya Gazeta, July 29).
Another high-profile case is the investigation of the imprisonment and death of a business lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, which goes nowhere despite Medvedev’s promise to get to the bottom of it (Moskovskiy Novosti, July 29). The US State Department instruction to deny visas to all officials connected to this shameful case irked Russian professional “patriots” who demand an “adequate” response (www.newsru.com, July 30; Kommersant, July 28).
The controllable and corrupt law enforcement system is indeed one of the core elements of Putin’s system of power, hence the angst about the external pressure for acting on Medvedev’s discourse on the independence of the courts and respect for law. Many of Putin’s minions have good reasons to worry about finding themselves on the next “not welcome” list, which would mean no access to the “safe havens” carefully prepared in the West (Novaya Gazeta, July 29). They also find it difficult to use the walled castles built in various natural paradises around Russia as smart bloggers reveal their existence to the disgruntled general population (www.newsru.com, July 29). The distance between this passive discontent and angry protests may turn out to be far shorter than the ruling kleptocracy assumes; one symptom of the widespread disappointment in the existing order is the strongly expressed desire to reinstate in the electoral bullet in the “Against all” option (www.levada.ru, July 28).
The post-election period is set to be troublesome as the populist budget would have to be curtailed as the new government charts the only possible course of slow growth and falling income. What the stake-holders in regime survival have to figure out now is how much higher the risks of an escalation of protests are with Putin executing the supreme authority. His decisiveness in performing the trademark “manual management” is in no doubt, but two crucial underpinnings of this “Tsarist” leadership will be missing: legitimacy and fear of repression. His belief in belonging in the Kremlin is unshakeable, but every week a new voice cries that the “national leader” is rather scantily clad. The elections will establish it for a fact, and then the tale could take different turns, but it is hard to see a happy ending.