Russia’s Two Headed Eagle -The Medvedev-Putin Tango

by Roman Kupchinsky

As the prolonged debate in the West continues over whether Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is his own man or Vladimir Putin’s loyal comrade in arms – temporarily filling-in for the former president- new developments in Russia are pouring oil on the potentially fiery dispute.

In April 2009 Medvedev’s administration first announced that presidential offices would be opened in all Russian regions in order to facilitate communications with local residents and handle their complaints. The project was delayed and on October 16, a few days after the highly controversial victory of Putin’s United Russia Party in regional elections, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that new instructions had been issued to hasten their opening.

Once this takes place there will, in all likelihood, be two such offices in every major city in Russia – one under the control of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and United Russia and one loyal to President Medvedev.

Putin’s offices were first established in 2008 and are staffed by local United Russia activists and community leaders. However, according to Medvedev’s press secretary Natalia Tymakova, Putin’s offices function more like public organizations while Medvedev’s will help facilitate the work of officials in dealing with requests from citizens. Will they compete for the hearts and minds of local residents is a possibility not being discounted by Russian observers.

If the coming battle is indeed for the minds of the average Russian citizen, then the Medvedev camp is playing a catch-up game with Putin’s well organized and handsomely financed United Russia.

On October 19, the Kremlin’s website announced that: “This year, Dmitry Medvedev took the initiative of changing the way the Presidential Address is drafted. The publication of his article Go Russia! was an invitation for the whole of Russian society to take part in the discussion. More than 13,000 comments and proposals have come in from individuals, political parties and public organizations in the five weeks since the article was published.”

What this wording might have meant was that during the Putin presidency, the “whole of Russian society” did not partake in the discussion and it was high time to democratize the process.

Medvedev will apparently take into account comments from the Russian narod (nation) about the direction the country is taking and incorporate their views into his “State of the Nation” speech which could be delivered in early November.

The Kremlin however, is playing it close to the vest and has not announced the date of Medvedev’s address, which will be delivered in the Kremlin to Cabinet members, federal lawmakers, heads of all courts, top prosecutors, religious leaders and heads of major public groups.

However, the major issue facing both men today is the uproar in Russia over the results of regional elections where United Russia has been widely accused of falsifying the vote. Medvedev condoned the results and initially refused to meet with the leaders of Russia’s three “opposition” parties who walked out of the State Duma in protest of results. He later changed his mind but has not yet set a date for the meeting.

How far Medvedev is willing to go in this battle over free elections is uncertain. If he is Putin’s policy slave, he has little room to maneuver and will not be in any position to set any election standards.

Medvedev’s remarks to the leadership of the United Russia Party on October 12 are hardly encouraging: “I think the elections were well-organized and show that the election campaign complied with all the legal requirements. The preliminary results are already known. As far as I know, United Russia has obtained the majority everywhere. I congratulate you, as the party’s leader, on this victory.”

Is Medvedev trying to win United Russia over to his alleged cause of democratizing Russia or is he paying homage to Putin in a game plan which few in the West are able to comprehend?