Are Russia-watchers guilty of over-thinking or over-hoping?
Sam Greene claims to have been the “last analyst left in Moscow who actually thought that Dmitri Medvedev would stay on as president of Russia,” but this is hyperbole. Analysts as talented as Stanislav Belkovsky, Igor Yurgens, and Gleb Pavlovsky (to name just a few) were also in Greene’s boat. The comes-as-no-surprise and told-you-so tone of the majority of post-September-24th reportage betrays a deeper curiosity that so many observers actually got it wrong.
How did this happen?
First we might examine how certain people got it right. Russians like Yulia Latynina have been saying for years that Putin will return to the presidency in 2012. She has consistently maintained that Vladimir Putin is the only enfranchised individual in all of Russia. Many U.S.-based analysts lost all faith in a second term for Medvedev after Khordorkovsky received the maximum sentence in his second trial. In the opinion of this blogger, these were accurate forecasts based on flawed methods — primarily a kind of moral disillusionment.
For many Russians, the absence of a fair elections process poisons the political system, producing unfiltered pessimism in reporting, which often encouraged analysts to dismiss Medvedev’s political weight simply because he is a part of a corrupt system. In the United States, certain Kremlinologists pinned their 2012 predictions to Medvedev’s performance in select episodes of democratic significance like the Khodorkovsky case, the Strategy 31 protests, and the registration of liberal opposition groups. Though they were right about the next president, their methods were based largely on normative distractions concerning democracy and fairness. If Medvedev was no better than Putin morally, they reasoned, his efficacy as a politician was irrelevant and automatically assumed to be zero.
In my encounters with this sentiment over the past, any attempts to parse the various instances of ‘tandem tension’ (be it direct friction between Putin and Medvedev, or broader conflicts between Russia’s competing interest groups) were shrugged off as ‘insider baseball’ that ignored the ‘more pressing’ questions about how ‘wrong or evil Putin really is.’
Most people who expected Medvedev to continue as president were operating on extremely close-readings of cadre shifts, rhetorical nuances in public speeches, and calculations about Russia’s future budgetary troubles. For instance, in his three-and-a-half years in office, Medvedev was never able to staff the top echelons of the state with true loyalists, but (as Olga Kryshtanovskaia has pointed out) he did take a very active role in replacing regional elites with younger politicians — individuals who owed their good fortune more to Medvedev than Putin.
Even with the tandem’s decision now revealed, there are undoubtedly political actors in Russian politics who will detach from Medvedev in search of another figure within the establishment, through whom they will attempt to restrain the policy aims of rival groups (such as the legendary ‘siloviki’). Many have recently cited Aleksei Kudrin’s démarche and Arkady Dvorkovich’s “no reason for happiness” tweet, but there are other people with significant influence (like several well-connected oligarchs with much to lose) who will also seek to restrain and reform the impulses of the state. It’s even possible that Medvedev will attempt to remain the chief-establishment-reformist, despite his coming demotion. His blowout with Kudrin suggests this as a possibility.
So did the Kremlinologists over-think this?
I don’t think so. There were good reasons to believe that a formidable camp was assembling around the current President. Medvedev has made that support far more difficult now, but the shared interests that fueled his presidential hopes are not going away.