The Kremlin Two-Step

“Westerners often see Russian politics in terms of a high-level struggle between liberals and conservatives,” observes Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writing for The Moscow Times. For instance, under President Boris Yeltsin, reformers fought nationalists while under Vladimir Putin, economic liberals opposed the siloviki — a class of politicians that originally served the security services and stresses national interests.

That view, argues Trenin, is a simplification of Russian politics and it fails to properly account for the Putin-Medvedev relationship.

To dismiss Medvedev as a mere Putin puppet — a constitutional bridge between Putin’s second and third presidential terms — would be both unfair and wrong. […] Conversely, portraying Putin as “a man from the past” and Medvedev as “a hope for the future” exaggerates the differences between them and omits the more important factors that unite them.

Dmitri Medvedev does appear to be more of a reformer, noting last November that the “country’s prestige and national prosperity cannot rest forever on past achievements.” Medvedev proposed modernization. Democracy, transparency, and a clean and healthy service economy were supposed to do away with a past of authoritarianism and heavy industry. All this is “borrowing massively from Putin’s vocabulary of 2000,” according to Trenin.

Medvedev was installed in the Kremlin as part of “Putin’s plan,” the substantive part of which was known as the “Strategy 2020,” a blueprint for renewed economic growth and diversification. Although last year’s financial meltdown hit Russia hard, it has only made Moscow modify and sharpen its scheme. “Medvedev is a key agent in its execution” and Putin chose him carefully — not only for his loyalty, “vitally important as that is.” The former president truly intends to move Russia forward. He “wants Russia to succeed in a world of competing powers.”

He has both money — the government’s budget and the oligarchs’ fortunes — and the coercive power of the state firmly in his hand. He is the arbiter at the top and the troubleshooter in social conflicts below. His most precious resource is his personal popularity, which adds a flavor of consent to his authoritarian regime.

That isn’t good enough though. An overwhelming majority of Russians support Putin but those are largely the people reminiscing about the Stalin era, longing for what Trenin calls “the preservation of a paternalistic state.” The best and the brightest aren’t among them.

Enter Medvedev. His Internet surfing, compassionate and generally liberal image helps recruit a key constituency — those beyond the reach of Putin himself — to Putin’s plan.

But in order to fully modernize Russia, the Putin-Medvedev twosome has not only to appeal to young urban professionals; they need to offer them actual modernization as well. They “must break the stranglehold of corruption, establish accountability and free the media.” At some point, argues Trenin, the Kremlin will have to decide between steady marginalization and opening up the system, putting the established order at risk. “Given the weight of geopolitical factors in Russian decisionmaking, it is difficult to foretell which path they will choose.”