A Russian Rift
If we think our 2012 election will offer a stark choice, it’s nothing compared to Russia’s.


President Medvedev chose the futuristic Skolkovo Business School campus outside of Moscow for his first-ever televised question-and-answer session last Wednesday. He was greeted by applause from the eight hundred journalists in attendance. They were hoping for the announcement. It did not come, but Medvedev did not pass up the opportunity to indirectly advance the case that he should be reelected president in 2012. Putin’s camp was less subtle. Over the weekend, “sources close to Putin” disclosed that he intended to run in the 2012 presidential election.

Over the past half year, Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have “announced” competing platforms for the presidential “campaign.” It’s a bit different from an American political campaign. Russia’s 2012 presidential election will be resolved behind closed doors in a byzantine process that no outsider can understand. There will emerge one candidate, who will run against token opposition, and who will be Russia’s president for the next four years.

Neither Medvedev nor Putin has declared his candidacy or openly presented his political platform. Both instead use imagery, veiled language, and other indirect communications with the public, their supporters and their opponents alike. Both Putin and Medvedev transmit symbolic messages. Putin pilots helicopters, treks through rugged terrain, hurls judo opponents to the floor, and generally shows that he is a tough guy despite his Napoleonic height. Medvedev wears business suits, travels to Silicon Valley, and speaks in lawyerly tones about the rule of law and increasing foreign investment. In one respect, though, Medvedev has become rather brazen: He has taken to wearing a bomber jacket emblazoned with the words “Russia’s Commander-in-Chief.” Among the commander-in-chief’s powers is the power to fire the prime minister.

The two men’s choices of medium reflect their different constituencies. Putin uses (quasi-state-run) television to address older and less-educated voters. His messages are directed at political appointees, state employees, state security officers, and even right-wing skinheads. Medvedev tweets on the Internet to a young and educated computer generation. Putin reminds pensioners that he has increased their pensions. Medvedev tells young and ambitious Russians that he will help them compete in the world of high tech.

As the day of decision draws closer, the competition between the two is becoming increasingly open and frank. Although Putin and Medvedev supposedly run Russia as a “tandem” of like minds, the visions of Russia’s future that they have spelled out are remarkably different. If we think that our 2012 election offers voters a stark choice, the Putin-Medvedev platforms give Russian voters an even starker choice.

On the economy:

Putin, who as prime minister is responsible for the economy, expresses pride that Russia “successfully avoided serious shocks that could have weakened the country and undermined its economic and human potential.” He declares that the huge drop in output and meager recovery (despite high oil prices) would have been much worse without his steady hand. Russia’s economic success (or lack of a worse disaster) is the result of his renationalization program, which has produced successful “public-private partnerships.” Russia’s future lies with giant state companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, and Transneft. Putin avoids mention of privatization. His contribution was returning to the state private companies that had fallen into the wrong hands (such as the Yukos oil company and Mikhail Khodorkovsky).

Medvedev describes the Russian economy as weak and atrophied. He warns: “Until we make our country attractive for business and private initiative, we will not achieve our main goal of improving the quality of life for our people.” The Russian economy is suffering because there is no rule of law, bureaucratic intervention stifles business, and corruption is rampant. Medvedev believes that state corporations exert too great an influence on the investment climate. Russia should have more privatization and private entrepreneurial activity, not more state ownership and control.

On corruption and conflicts of interest:

Putin avoids mention of corruption, other than obligatory remarks in passing, for good reason: He is personally corrupt. That he cannot mention corruption, although Russians clearly understand its pervasiveness, is a clear sign of weakness. For Putin, there is no state corruption. The state must help Russian business, and the government officials who run Russia must be rewarded. There is nothing wrong with government officials serving as chief executives of the companies they regulate. It is only natural that they should become rich. After all, they are the ones making this wealth happen. This is not really corruption but state capitalism.