Yesterday in Foreign Policy, the latest article by Julia Ioffe appeared on the subject of Yuri Luzhkov’s ouster. The piece, “Happy Birthday, You’re Fired,” makes for a good read, but I disagree with much of its content, and so I offer the following response.
Ms. Ioffe’s central thesis is that firing Luzhkov does nothing to boost the power of President Medvedev, and that the entire bonanza was the “dirty work” of Vladimir Putin. She argues that people are wrong to say that Medvedev won and Putin lost. “That explanation,” Ioffe says, “makes little sense, as does any that treats the presidency as a real contest between Medvedev and Putin, or a perceived split between the two as something other than political theater.”
This is a scarecrow argument insofar as it assumes the relationship between the tandem partners is a zero sum game. Characterizing this interplay as a win/lose scenario forgets the fact that Vladimir Putin himself gave Medvedev his biggest credibility boost of all by promoting him as his successor. In the last two years, Putin has never vowed to return to the presidency – something that is legally within his rights. Instead, he has only hinted at the idea and repeatedly waxed on about his good relationship with Dmitri Anatolyevich, with whom he says he’ll decide 2012 in private. The reelection of Medvedev, while far from predetermined, is a very real option under Putin’s consideration. That being reality, it’s over-simplistic if not foolish to dismiss the growth of President Medvedev’s influence on the grounds that it assumes his every advance comes at the expense of the Prime Minister. Medvedev’s gain is Putin’s gain, as it adds credibility to the tandem’s junior partner and preserves the choice ahead for 2012. Putin wants that choice, and he’s said so at every opportunity over the last year.
Ioffe seems to have embraced such cynicism about Medvedev’s potential in part due to conversations with a number of unidentified “government operatives,” whom she cites numerous times throughout the article. I’ve no doubt that many people in the halls of power are firmly convinced that Medvedev is nothing more than a presidential placeholder. But, as Ioffe herself acknowledges, the staff members of Russian politicians are also prone to obliviousness. Indeed, Luzhkov’s aides lined up yesterday morning to hand him birthday gifts, unaware that their boss had just been canned. “When they found out, many were stunned,” she writes. The game of quoting Kremlin insiders, incidentally, can be played both ways. This morning, Vedomosti reported, “by the words of a government official,” that earlier this summer Putin had promised Luzhkov that he could remain in office until his term expired in June 2011.
Ioffe also repeats an amusing line by Aleksei Chadaev (“in our Russian bureaucracy, trying to split the tandem is the deadly sin”), which conveniently pretends that Luzhkov was the first public figure to “split the tandem.” This is a rather strange argument to make, given that it was President Medvedev’s sudden and unexpected decision to halt construction of the road through Khimki Forest that jumpstarted the entire Luzhkov controversy. Yuri Mikhailovich is not the sinner, but the poor sod who dared to throw the first stone. Consider what Yulia Latynina (who, I confess, agrees with Ioffe’s overarching thesis) said about the whole scandal in a Novaya Gazeta op-ed today:
The scandal around Luzhkov didn’t start at all with Luzhkov, but at the moment Dmitri Medvedev, in Putin’s absence (while he was riding around the Far East in a yellow Lada), promised public opinion that he would reconsider the road through Khimki Forest. […] In the eyes of Prime Minister Putin, any kind of response to public opinion amounts to weakness, especially when the road through that forest is being built by Putin’s person friend, Rotenberg, and protesting against its construction is Putin’s personal enemy, Shevchuk.
And what of Ioffe’s claim that Medvedev did Putin’s dirty work? Here is what she wrote on this subject:
Instead, Putin determined that Luzhkov needed to go and sent in Medvedev to do the dirty work, a move that not only knocks out a powerful rival but leaves his hands unsoiled in what has become a bloody fight. “Putin wanted to stay in the shadows on this one, and he won by doing so,” a highly placed United Russia official told me. “Luzhkov was made into a cautionary tale; he was rather publicly and shamefully trampled. The elites surely won’t love Medvedev for this, and it will be hard for him to win back their love.”
Yes, Luzhkov was indisputably made an example of what happens when any official speaks out against the president, but why the sudden talk of “love”? While I don’t rule out that the Kremlin could be overwhelmed by the work of administering the city of Moscow (something Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokin, of all people, zeroed in on immediately, uttering surprisingly kind words for Luzhkov’s social spending record), it seems absurd to speak of Medvedev’s need to make the Moscow elite “love” him. Whatever love has been lost has surely been replaced by something equally if not more impressive in Russian politics: fear. As for maintaining the good graces of Moscow’s apparatchiki and ensuring a smooth transition of power, neither love nor fear will eclipse the role of handouts, golden parachutes, and continuity. We won’t know more about the Kremlin’s plans for the future until later, but Medvedev’s interim appointment of Vladimir Resin to the mayor’s office indicates that he is sensitive to the needs of “love,” even as he castrates the city’s former boss.