Everything worked in perfect synch at President Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration and at the Victory Day parade on Red Square, which gave the pompous ceremony a powerful conclusion. The heavy military that rolled through Moscow for the first time since the Soviet era perhaps provided some psychological reassurance to the hyper-anxious political elite that gathered en masse to see and be seen, but it still gives no clue about the real division of labor and authority in the emerging two-headed leadership (www.gazeta.ru, May 7). The show was long on symbolism emphasizing the unity and closeness between the two men who stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Lenin’s tomb but observers still noticed that Putin was visibly tense and did not seem to enjoy the triumph of his succession plan (Kommersant, May 8; Moscow echo, May 9). The office of prime minister, however strengthened during the last few weeks, still has far fewer of those small but sweet perks of power that Putin has grown so fond of, and his ire at seeing his apprentice enjoying them is unlikely to pass.
Conflict between the formally omnipotent president and his prime minister who is still widely perceived as the “national leader” is structurally and culturally (in terms of political traditions and bureaucratic culture of servitude) inevitable, whatever agreements and understandings have been reached by the duumvirs (www.grani.ru, May 8). The conflict might evolve slowly as Medvedev, who is definitely the wrong person for the role of a ceremonial president, strengthens his grasp on power and gradually reduces Putin to a replaceable second-in-command. A permanent feud between the two courts of aides and lackeys would then be contained by the constantly renegotiated contract between the rising and eclipsing “tsars,” provided that the latter would accept this fate (www.polit.ru, March 5). It is, however, entirely plausible that the conflict would follow a far steeper trajectory under the impact of external forces that would interfere with, and could spoil, the best intentions of the tandem riders.
The economy is the likeliest force for producing such an impact, particularly as inflation registered another jump in April (6.3 percent since the start of the year), necessitating a number of no-nonsense cuts in the generous electoral promises (Kommersant, May 6). Russia has so far avoided the spasms of overlapping financial, energy and food crises that torment the world economy, but signs of normalization in the oil market might change its incredibly long-lasting luck (Moscow echo, May 9). While the economic storm is officially banished from the horizon by incantations about “innovation” and “investment,” a different crisis always has a chance to strike before the bifurcation in the Russian leadership begins to make sense.
Events of this kind tend to arrive unannounced, but in the last few weeks confrontation with Georgia has been shaping up as a possible first test for Medvedev. The immediate cause for this round of confrontation was Putin’s order to expand economic and social ties with the break-away republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which served the dual purpose of constituting the promised “asymmetrical response” to the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the United States and some of its allies and of asserting Moscow’s opposition to Georgia’s bid to join NATO (Novaya gazeta, April 21). Apart from crying out loud to the rather indifferent “international community,” there was not much that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili could do, so he found a way to demonstrate his resolve to win back the secessionist provinces by sending intelligence drones to fly over Abkhazia (Expert, April 28). One or more of those were shot down, triggering not only angry verbal exchanges a but buildup of troops, so Saakashvili had reason to say that Georgia and Russia were close to war and that the threat persisted (RIA-Novosti, May 8). The Kremlin dismissed that statement, but the implicit response was delivered in Medvedev’s short pre-parade speech in which he emphasized “that armed conflicts do not simply start of their own accord. The flames of conflict are lit by those who put their own irresponsible ambitions above the interests of whole countries.”
Medvedev certainly does not want to be sucked into this Caucasian calamity, but he has to face the dilemma that discharging this conflict would be both very easy and absolutely impossible. He is preparing for his first telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush and has noted the U.S. State Department’s suggestion to restore the status quo ante of early April (RIA-Novosti, Regnum, May 9). That would have indeed extinguished the local brushfire that threatens to compromise Russia’s most valued “national project” – the Sochi Winter Olympic games (Vedomosti, April 29). Canceling Putin’s order under “pressure” from the United States, however, is hardly an option that Medvedev is prepared to contemplate. He is perfectly aware that foreign policy is the most popular part of Putin’s heritage and that a tough line against Saakashvili is enthusiastically supported not just by “patriotic” commentators but by a majority of the population (Vremya novostei, 8 May).
Adhering to this line and applying military instruments for deterring the “irresponsible” Saakashvili might help Medvedev establish his credentials with the skeptical siloviki, who did not miss the peculiar political nuance that the new president chose to sign several “social” decrees, for instance on federal universities, before performing the ceremony of assuming control over the strategic forces. At the same time, such experimenting with the “big stick” might hurt Medvedev in introducing himself to the West, which is now demonstratively open to making a new start in building a partnership with Russia. From this Monday on, the time has come for the third Russian president to start doing such things as appointing key aides and asserting his authority, and he might never have more freedom of choice than during this week, what with all of Putin’s looming presence. Medvedev’s uphill struggle for his own presidency has just started and it cannot be won only by intrigue and rank-pulling. He has to learn the trade of decision-making, and Georgia can give him a chance to prove that he has what it takes.