8685To leave and stay at the same time
- Mar 8, 2008The handover of power in Russia is confounding one and all. Eric
Walberg looks into the crystal ball
To leave and stay at the same time
As expected, the Russian presidential elections went smoothly, with
Dmitri Medvedev reaping a comfortable 70 per cent of the vote, and a
robust turnout of 70 per cent, virtually tied with President
Vladimir Putin's 71 per cent in 2004. The Communists garnered a
surprising 18 per cent, despite what both they and foreign observers
claimed were clear violations of procedure in some districts.
However, even the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
concluded the vote reflected the will of the people.
"Together we can continue the course set by President Putin.
Together we'll go further. Together we'll win," Medvedev, dressed in
jeans and a black leather jacket, told a crowd who braved driving
sleet to cheer him after the tally. Medvedev did not campaign and
refused to take part in televised debates. However, no one questions
his right to move into Russia's powerful presidential seat, despite
his tender 42 years and the fact that he has never been elected
Frustrated Western commentators denounced the elections. Italy's La
Stampa referred to "a democracy that many consider mutilated, even
destroyed." With the remarkable turnaround of Russia's fortunes
under Putin, they have reverted to the arcane science of
Kremlinology, dismissing Russian public life; instead, sifting
through bits of media fluff who's sitting next to whom at
meetings, etc to try to gaze into Russia's political future. While
this can be amusing, it's not necessary in order to see the broad
outlines of what is happening.
In his eight years at the helm, Putin reversed Russia's decline and
is deservedly admired and respected. At the same time, the robber-
baron plutocracy he inherited did not magically reform itself, but
seems to have settled in to a quasi-state-run group of competing
power centres "clans" is a word casually thrown around in the
Western media, with Putin supposedly keeping the lid on their
desires to expand their influence. Remarkably, to the extent that
this scenario indeed reflects the reality, Putin himself has not
staked out a personal economic empire, unlike his ne'er-do-well
predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Though the latter is universally reviled now, much as is his own
predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin is at least given credit for
plucking the incorruptible ex-KGB agent Putin from obscurity and
letting him clean up some of the mess he created, though Putin was
forced to agree to leave Yeltsin and his cronies alone, which he did.
Now the tables have turned somewhat. Putin could easily retire as
did Yeltsin and bask in his deserved fame. He could easily have
agreed to calls to amend the constitution to allow him to continue
indefinitely as president. Instead, he chose to pass the torch to a
young liberal lawyer with no background in the security forces, and
to take on the much less prestigious, much harder task of prime
minister. It's the PM who takes the heat when the economy screws up.
He can be dismissed along with the cabinet by the president.
But what is so enigmatic about this? Russia now has some law and
order, some stability, some credibility as a bulwark against Western
imperial pressures. Time to move on. All indications are that Putin
will continue to be an important political force, quite possibly
taking on the delicate but important task of taming the siloviki
(referring to the security forces) who are trying to consolidate
their economic power with the new, equally clean president backing
The Western view is that Medvedev is merely a puppet that Putin will
manipulate and discard if he doesn't prove up to the task, a weak
and hopefully harmless compromise candidate who will ensure that the
privileges of Russia's political clans are preserved and kept under
control. That this is in the Russian tradition of the dictator and
his circle choosing someone who will not rock the boat.
In fact, none of his predecessors were shrinking violets, even the
cautious Brezhnev, who pushed aside his patrons and effectively
destroyed the system he inherited by trying not to rock the boat too
much. But Medvedev is no Brezhnev. It is very unlikely that he's a
Gorbachev either. The nightmare that perestroika resulted in is all
too fresh in Russians' minds. Nor is there the same desperate need
to radically change the system as there was with Stalin or
The political landscape eight years on has already changed radically
from the days of Yeltsin. Not only are the Westernisers cowed, but
the Communists are now the loyal, if slightly put-out, opposition
a complete reversal of the legacy that Yeltsin bequeathed Putin.
Yes, Russia has effectively reverted to a one-party state, though
unlike the Communist days, there is lots of room for criticism. Like
its Soviet predecessor, Russia has a vital role to play in the world
as the brave voice that will speak out against US imperialism. These
realities are Putin's most enduring legacy. It is unlikely that
Medvedev will discard them. Furthermore, he has staked out his
intentions to engage the private sector, as opposed to his rival
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's desire to establish new state-
As for Putin, it seems that he is getting ready to role up his
sleeves and tackle the troubling stranglehold that economic elites
still have on Russian life. He is certainly the inspiration for
Medvedev's announcement that government officials should not hold
positions on boards of companies. "Truly independent directors
should replace them," Medvedev has made clear. Which means he will
himself resign as chairman of Gazprom and surely insist that Kremlin
Personnel Manager Viktor Ivanov resign as chairman of Almaz-Anbtei,
Minister of Education Andrei Fursenko as chairman of Ronsnanotekh,
and Kremlin aide Sergei Chemezov as chairman of Rosoboronexport, all
protégés of Putin. The recent arrest of the notorious mafia kingpin
Semyon Mogilevich is also a hopeful sign of things to come. Putin
already created an investigative commission to operate in parallel
with the prosecutor-general's office to try to balance these groups,
chaired by Aleksandr Bastrykin.
Last October in Kommersant, head of Federal Drug Control Service
Viktor Cherkesov called for a ceasefire among warring siloviki,
warning that state corporatism, credited with saving Russia, would
collapse if the infighting continued. Analyst Alexander Golts
explains, "they stood together as long as they were robbing others
of their assets. But after dividing the spoils, they realised that
they can only expand their wealth by robbing one another."
That all this is public knowledge shows that no one is deemed
untouchable. Can Medvedev/Putin call a truce among the warring
Kremlin factions, and strengthen judicial independence? Or is the
intent to pursue the "sovereign democracy" which now seems to be the
norm, establishing an acceptable pax putina within the economic
elite, a kind of neo-tsarism?
This is clearly uncharted territory. Everyone agrees that the future
of the political (and, by implication, bureaucratic) diarchy will
keep Russians, indeed the world, guessing which of the two has more
political clout. It is quite possible that Medvedev will continue to
take directions from Putin. Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the
Institution for Globalisation Studies and Social Movements in
Moscow, worries, "will the bureaucratic machine be efficient now
that neither the law nor the internal administrative regulations say
how it must function?" Kagarlitsky argues that the transformation of
the president into the PM could paralyse the presidential
administration and the cabinet of ministers, that this move is a
blunder, a dangerous game to leave and stay at the same time.
Is this a replay of the legendary Russian tragedy of Boris Godunov,
regent to Tsarevich Feodor, or a heroic and brilliant strategy to
continue Russia's return to health? Perhaps it will be clearer by
this summer, when Russia sends a delegation to the Group of Eight
meeting in Japan. Will Putin attend, or Medvedev, or both?
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at
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