The eternal, hotly-debated question about whether or not Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin was answered yesterday in the affirmative. None other than Dmitri Medvedev made the announcement, minutes before Putin returned to the stage at the United Russia party convention to deliver what was essentially an early victory speech.
There is much to lament in this development, but I’ll cast aside any personal disappointment and focus instead on what I view to be the greatest dangers now facing Russian politics observers and analysts. The inescapable conclusion today is that supporters of a second consecutive term for Dmitri Medvedev have suffered a major defeat. Whether we brand them ‘reformers,’ ‘ciliviki,’ or ‘liberals,’ this loose group among Russia’s political actors has lost the politician it hoped to ride for the next six years.
To better understand the nature of these ‘reformers,’ it’s worth remembering one of the funnier anecdotes about the current president: ‘Medvedev’s Party most certainly exists, but it’s unclear whether or not Medvedev himself is a member.’ Yesterday, we all learned that he is not.
And while this is a massive, possibly crippling setback to those who lobbied and maneuvered for a second Medvedev term, Russian politics will continue. ‘A sacred space shall never remain empty,’ and the same goes for a political vacuum. There are vested interests in high places pursuing aims and values incongruous and sometimes outright incompatible with the plans and projects of the reigning political champions, mainly the siloviki, organized around Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.
For the last three years, it seemed that Medvedev was extending his influence and power through a growing supply of appointees and loyalists. Whether by longterm design or sudden improvisation, Medvedev has now abandoned his supporters quite ruthlessly.
But many, if not most, of these people are unlikely to throw up a white flag and acquiesce. Some will fight on and find a new leader (or even another figurehead), motivated by several factors, not least of which is a simple, perhaps idealistic commitment to preventing the tyranny of a one-party, static government. But at play there’s also an unromantic, hard-nosed struggle between several powerful groups. For example: the recent black PR campaign against Transport Minister Igor Levitin (a figure whom TsPKR links to oligarchs Rotenberg, Kovalchuk, and Timchenko) was supposedly an attack from the siloviki, who recently suffered a blow possibly from those latter two tycoons in an effort to take control over Rosneftegaz.
Just today, long-time Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin stated publicly (from Washington, DC, amusingly) that he will leave his current role when Medvedev takes over as Prime Minister. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov clarified immediately that Kudrin will likely migrate to a new position that reports directly to a reinstated President Putin. One Russian news site has already cited an unnamed source who expects Kudrin to take over Russia’s Central Bank.
Yesterday, Vladimir Pribylovsky told Radio Liberty that Medvedev’s supporters have been flocking to Kudrin over the last year, as the 2012 writing on the wall grew clearer. “It’s precisely Kudrin who will be the fundamental organizer of possible reforms and changes in counterweight to the conservative groups,” Pribylovsky forecasted, adding that Kudrin is still a likely candidate for Prime Minister, as Medvedev could soon be swapped out to lead the Constitutional Court.
Kudrin based his decision to resign on disagreements about military and social spending, which he attributed to the current President. I’ve broached some of this debate in a previous post about social insurance taxes, but it’s important to note that delays in pension reforms and boosts to the defense industry are hardly initiatives devised by Medvedev. This type of fiscal irresponsibility is a necessity in an election year, and it’s telling that Kudrin lashes out at Medvedev, when these policies ultimately track back to Putin himself. In other words, Kudrin is politicking — directing his criticisms away from Putin, probably in order to secure a new job that preserves his proximity to the president, where he can continue to exercise a moderating influence on the statism promoted by the siloviki.
The thing to remember in the coming weeks — and this will be especially difficult, as ‘obituaries for democracy’ engulf the media and blogosphere — is that Russian politics is bigger than Vladimir Putin. It’s bigger than Putin plus Medvedev, as well, and will continue to be an expansive arena of conflicting groups and interests, with results manipulated but never entirely orchestrated by any single politician.
Medvedev’s Party existed, but it failed to coalesce. This was not the first chapter in Russian politics, and it won’t be the last.