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Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Year of the Bear?

Photo: Sergei Maximishin
As he stepped into office exactly one year ago, few could have guessed the events that were in store with Dmitri Medvedev at the helm of Russia’s leadership. Many speculated about the possible changes within Russia and in her relations with others under a new, possibly liberal leader. Attentions were soon directed to the practicalities of the Putin-Medvedev tandem; who would take the leading role and was political conflict or instability in store? One year on and a question mark still hangs over many important questions. This week Russian Newsweek evaluated the power dynamic that has defined Medvedev’s first year in office.

Political commentators had a field day with Medvedev’s various antics a few weeks ago; first he was pardoning political prisoners, next he was giving an interview to the oppositionist “Novaia Gazeta”, then meeting with human rights defenders or liberal economic research centres. Overall it was certain comments made to Novaia Gazeta that got some fired up the most [read extracts from the interview on this blog here], with Medvedev declaring “I made this decision – and everyone else has to carry it out.” Did this mean that the young President had stepped out from under Putin’s shadow, defying his former master and the man he owes much of his career to, in order to take firm control of the country?

According to Russian Newsweek, things are not quite so clear cut. The above comments are indeed representative of Medvedev’s attitude towards state employees in general; they should simply come to work and do the tasks that are assigned to them, a far cry from the personal relationships favoured by Putin during his time as President. However, as a consequence many point out that Medvedev has failed thus far to surround himself with a close personal team such as that which Putin successfully created for himself whilst in power and retains to this day.

And these are just some of the reasons that Newsweek sees as indicating that Putin is making a comeback. As he was sworn into office, Medvedev started off promisingly, redoubling efforts to combat corruption and reform the judicial system. Yet any illusion of this “soft style” of rule being around to stay quickly faded with the August war in Georgia and the Ukrainian gas crisis. It was at this point that Medvedev slowly started to fade into the background and, as Newsweek points out, as the amendment to the constitution extending the presidential term was pushed through parliament it all became increasingly clear – Putin was back pulling the strings, and he was around to stay.

A quick look at the areas of competency of Prime Minister Putin; the country’s financial resources and key foreign policy decisions in Putin’s hands as well as control over aid to Russia’s regions and industry and the power to push forward initiatives such as that to amend the constitution, all begs us to ask the question: what is it that the President does? According to Newsweek’s enquiries, the truth of the matter all lies in initiatives.

Indeed much of the political manoeuvring in Russia of late has been on Medvedev’s initiative. Whether such initiatives have lived long enough to bear fruit however, is another matter. It was Medvedev who prompted the initiative of replacing numerous regional governors and mayors who have been rusting in their official positions for a good part of the past 20 years, yet only one of those on the list of those up for the chop was finally let go. Similarly, the anti-corruption package of measures proposed by the President was not passed through parliament until it had been severely modified. Medvedev’s power is thus limited to proposing reforms; with many of those executing his decisions reporting directly to the Prime Minister, the scope for the President’s orders to be carried out as he intends is restricted.

Moreover, in foreign policy Medvedev has his hands tied, Dmitri Trenin from the Russian Carnegie Centre told Newsweek. In order for him to make a decision, he has to go over the head of the Prime Minister, something that he is loathe to do given the potential conflicts, not to say embarrassments that could arise from such uncoordinated political assertiveness.

It seems therefore, that whilst Medvedev wants to assert himself, he wants to refrain from placing himself in direct opposition to Putin. As Newsweek reported last summer, in order to do so, Medvedev has been concentrating on areas that are further removed from Putin’s general domain, such as the judicial system. Accordingly, Medvedev’s reforms of the judiciary are part of his attempts to tease the courts out from under the influence of the siloviki [note: Russian politicians still in power often with a security services background] and in particular, the siloviki surrounding Putin. Moreover, sources close to Newsweek indicate that in creating an ever-increasing amount of Presidential Councils on various matters, Medvedev is conveniently avoiding the issue of having to pass his decisions past Putin. The Foreign Office, which, as do these Councils, reports directly to the President is similarly out of the Prime Minister’s reach.

Thus to some extent Medvedev’s attempts at scratching back some influence are beginning to pay off, albeit with some areas of confusion; the old rules are still in place whilst new ones are already in full swing which had lead to a degree of unpredictability in the system as a whole. Whilst the Putin and Medvedev tandem was previously careful to avoid any signs of contradiction between the two camps, having let their guard down conflicts are becoming increasingly apparent.

Yet Newsweek points out that despite the contradictions and difficulties, the Putin-Medevedev duumvirate seems to be in no danger of collapse. In fact, the situation seems to suit everyone. Putin is happy as he holds the reigns. Medvedev is happy as he gets some respite from the responsibilities of being President whilst still retaining all the privileges that come with such a post. If the situation does not change significantly, then despite Medvedev’s increasing confidence, he will still be prepared to step aside to allow Putin to become President again in 2012.
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You can read the original article upon which this is based here.



1 comment:

Balqis said...

I think their roles were planned exactly as they are unfolding now
It needs to be seen if the balance can be kept or which of them will break it and how