Politics & Policy

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.

Medvedev makes corruption a cornerstone of his platform: “Corruption . . . maintains a stranglehold on the entire economy, and this hold is still as strong as ever. The result is clear for all to see: Money is fleeing our economy. Not as many people believe in the possibility of doing safe and successful business in Russia.” He makes no bones about what should be done with corrupt officials: “We will have no choice but to dismiss those who continue to erect various barriers and obstacles, give preference to their friends, or fail to take the required action on the basis of pretended state interests that have nothing in common with our people’s interests.” We cannot have “government ministers responsible for regulation in particular sectors sitting on the boards of directors of companies.”

On political succession and political competition:

Putin avoids reference to political competition and succession. He casually suggests that the presidential succession is something that will be “worked out” one of these days, when he has time to address such a trivial matter. In the past, Putin justified his legitimacy with his high approval ratings: He has had to bow reluctantly to the will of the people, who demand that he continue in office. Putin’s attitude to real political competition is evident. It was he who introduced the appointment (rather than election) of regional officials, excluded real opponents from ballots, and used violence to suppress political demonstrations.

Medvedev speaks in favor of political competition and against political dynasties: “None of us wants to have just one party deciding everything.” Veteran politicians (like Putin?) should make room for new people: “No one can stay in power forever. . . . People who harbor such illusions usually come to a rather bad end, and the world has given us quite a few examples of late. . . . We need to open the road to young people.”

On foreign policy:

Putin wishes for a strong and independent Russia, surrounded by former members of the Soviet Union, whose demise was “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.” Putin yearns for an “independent and strong” Russian industry protected by the state. He is ambiguous about greater integration into the world economy as a member of the World Trade Organization. Putin is deeply suspicious of the West, which is intent on encircling Russia. Russia must protect its interests by making trouble for its Western competitors, as in its invasion of Georgia, nuclear deals with Iran, and lack of cooperation on sanctions in the United Nations.

Medvedev has welcomed the reset of Russia’s relations with the West and has persistently promoted Russia’s joining the WTO. He would like Russia better integrated into world capital and product markets, and he promotes an improvement of economic and political institutions to make this possible. The Putin-Medvedev campaign is conventional in one respect: Medvedev has cast himself as the challenger of the status quo. Putin is its defender. The electors are a shadowy group of officials and oligarchs. There is enough uncertainty that no one really knows what the outcome will be. All want to be on the winning side, so they will play their cards cautiously.

The campaign will be decided by power politics. If the electors think that Putin is on his way down, they will support Medvedev. If they conclude that Medvedev is a paper tiger, despite his massive formal powers as president, they will back Putin. The electors must also make personal cost-benefit calculations. The beneficiaries of Putin’s corruption will worry that they will lose everything if there is a regime change. So they might support Putin — or they might offer their support to Medvedev in return for guarantees. Putin himself would have this concern ten times over. Can he strike a deal with Medvedev that will preserve his wealth and give him legal immunity?

The electors will be frantically reading the tea leaves. At this point, I imagine no one really knows which way to jump.

The pro-Putin forces, however, see a few things that should alarm them. Putin’s personal popularity has been falling in the polls. So has Medvedev’s, but Putin is the symbol of the status quo. Both men’s approval ratings remain high, but it is the direction of change that counts. A growing number of Russians tell pollsters that Russia is moving in the wrong direction. Many opinion-making celebrities, artists, and journalists are now openly critical of Putin.

Putin’s political party, United Russia, took a beating in the recent municipal elections. Its candidates failed in a number of cases to win majorities even though they had no real opposition. The failure to win majorities suggests that voters chose “anybody but Putin’s candidate.”

Medvedev has started to exercise his power as president, and his orders are being obeyed — even his order that ministers resign from management positions of state-run companies. Most notably, he forced Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin — Putin’s right-hand man — to resign as chairman of the board of Rosneft.

After Medvedev had a dustup with Putin over the bombing of Libya, Russia’s main television station reversed its coverage on Libya from anti-Western to neutral.

Let’s be clear: Political platforms are political platforms. If Medvedev is Russia’s next president, he will not fulfill his “campaign promises.” Even if he genuinely believes in his platform, he will be constrained by strong vested interests. But Russia will tilt in a slightly more pro-Western, pro-rule-of-law, pro-democracy direction.

If Putin is Russia’s next president, we can expect more of the same. Russia will be a brutish bully on the world stage. Political opponents will continue to be beaten. Corruption is likely to grow.

The stakes are remarkably high for the electors. There are huge amounts of wealth to be gained or lost. There is the danger of indictments and prison terms. Putin still controls the “power ministries” of the KGB, the police, and justice. If he feels his grip slipping, either he will try to work out a deal whereby he is allowed to ride into the sunset, or he will loose his KGB thugs to ensure that he remains in power.

— Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, focusing on the Russian economy and Russian politics. He is also the author of numerous books, including Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).


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