by Gordon M. Hahn
The U.S. mainstream continues to march pretty much in lockstep by diverting readers attention from Russian President Dmitrii Medvedevs increasingly ambitious liberalization agenda.
Last week, as if on cue, both the New York Times and Washington Post issued articles on the an identical theme the tussle under the rug between Medevedev and his predecessor and Vladimir Putin. This gives readers the appearance that nothing else happens or matters in Russia but a power struggle between the two of them. That struggle is confined so far to jockeying between the supporters of Putin and/or Medvedev over who should be the presidential candidate in the March 2012 elections.
The first story, from the WPs Kathy Lally of May 7th, asked: (I)s (the) Putin-Medvedev rift all part of the game? (Awaiting Russian presidential vote, is Putin-Medvedev rift all part of the game?, Washington Post, 7 May 2011). It cited only those Russian political scientists who claimed that there was no real competition in Russia and emphasized the supposed similarities between the Russian and Soviet political systems. The message: (1) the tandem is deliberately fostering the appearance of a rift between them in order to create an image of political competition and (2) nothing has changed under Medvedev.
To this two things must be noted. First, there is a real split emerging between elements within Medvedevs and Putins respective teams or groups of supporters (the tendency of which has been present since the beginning). Second, although the nascent power struggle deserves attention, there is real change occurring in Russia and much of it is in the right direction.
The more important story is the tussle between reform and the status quobetween political reform versus purely Chinese-style economic modernization, and between those supporting Russias move towards the rule of law and the professional kleptocrats. Yet Lally intentionally disinforms the reading public when she notes: (T)he evidence - or lack thereof - of a rift gets extensive attention in the media here (Moscow) and in the West. Here, if you're a political reporter, there's not much to write about if you stay away from the subject.
As I have noted numerous times on ROPV, both political and economic reform is ongoing and in the immediate offing. The most obvious include: MVD or police reform, prison reform, sentencing reforms (especially but not exclusively for white collar crimes), some judicial reform, intensifying anti-corruption legislation, privatization, de-statization of state companies executive boards, greater freedom of assembly especially with regard to opposition and other forms of demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, minor but somewhat significant electoral reforms, and a thaw in relations with the U.S. and the West. Almost none of this has been even mentioned in the NYT, WP, Wall Street Journal, and other U.S. mainstream media.
Indeed, aspects of Medvedevs reforms, many unendorsed by Putin, are helping to drive the competition between the tandems principals and their teams, in particular the police and judicial reforms, mounting anti-corruption campaign, privatization, and the de-statization of state company boards. Yet the NYT and WP persist in keeping silent on these reforms, featuring that change is not occurring and insisting that Medvedev is nothing more than the KGB dictator Putins hapless puppet.
More disturbingly, Lally got several things totally wrong. First, she cherry-picked from Olga Khryshtanovskayas work to the effect that Medvedev only replaced two of the 75 officials he inherited from Putin, a comment on his lack of power and Putin's reach. What Lally leaves out is that this figure relates to Putins government only, and does not affect other important institutions and offices such as governors. In fact, Kryshtanovskaya has reported elsewhere a steep drop in the number of FSB and other officials from the so-called siloviki or power ministries (FSB, GRU, Defense Ministry, Internal Affairs Ministry, etc.) in state posts, since the onset of the tandem and Medvedevs presidency from 67 percent in the executive branch in 2007 overall to just 36 percent in the Kremlin, presumably meaning the presidential administration, and 27 percent in Putins government today (Charles Clover, Politics: Shift in focus puts former spies out in the cold, Financial Times, 27 April 2011). Moreover, Medvedev has fired and/or joined with regional legislatures in replacing almost half of the approximately 80 Putin-appointed and Putin-reappointed governors.
Thus, Lally only reports on those political observers who support her point of view: Mr. Zero, Lilia Shevtsova calls him. There is no evidence Medvedev represents new, modern, value-oriented and transformative thinking. None. Medvedev, Shevtsova suggests, would hardly differ from Putin even if he wielded total power. He was in charge during the second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which legal experts dismiss as a gross miscarriage of justice, he was in charge when lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention, he has been in charge as corruption has grown ever greater, she says.
There is simply no logic here. Just because some things remain the same, does not mean that other things have not changed and should be expunged from the conversation. Reform periods, especially in their early stages of any country, are always cohabitated by elements of the old and new. The full measure of reform or democratization projects can only be taken once they have ended either in democracy or more of the same. Second, the numerous reforms which Medvedev has inititated plus his strikingly different statements on the importance of democracy and political reforms, stand in sharp contrast to Putins record and discourse. Shevtsovas claim that there are no differences between Medvedev and Putin does not stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
Ellen Barrys article in the NYT covers the same themes (Ellen Barry, Bulldogs Under the Rug? Signs of a Putin-Medvedev Rift, New York Times, 9 May 2011). It differs in two respects. First, the kinds of misstatements and misrepresentations found in Lallys piece are absent. Second, she takes the possibility of a rift seriously. Unfortunately, like Lallys, her piece continues the NYTs pattern of avoiding any mention of Medvedevs longstanding thaw in domestic and foreign policy.
ARTICLES IN QUESTION:
7 May 2011
Awaiting Russian presidential vote, is Putin-Medvedev rift all part of the game?
MOSCOW Less than a year before the presidential election, with the country ruled in deep secrecy, political discourse has been reduced to parsing every remark by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev for signs of their intentions.
Neither has said whether he will run, but the exercise has produced a lively political horse race, with one sounding presidential and a certain candidate one week, only to fall victim to a barbed comment from the other and lag behind, out of the running, the next.
If only, lament those watching from the sidelines, it were true.
"I believe there is no competition," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin's United Russia party and a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences who studies the decision-making elite. "Our politics are a theater. There are directors and a script. And for some reason they love it when the public says there are conflicts."
Lilia Shevtsova, a mordant critic of the administration and a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, uses remarkably similar language in reaching a comparable conclusion. "There are no politics," she says. "Politics exist where you have an independent media, attentive audience and unpredictable script. What's interesting is that the Kremlin supports this story-telling."
In the Soviet era, outsiders divined the workings of the Politburo by studying Red Square parades to see who was standing next to whom on top of Lenin's tomb. This approach turned out to have limitations when the internal weakness, and then collapse, of the Soviet system took much of the world by surprise.
Today's Kremlinologists rely on public comments that may eventually prove just as misleading.
"I think it's almost the same as in Soviet times," says Kryshtanovskaya, who still watches who sits in which government seats. She says that Medvedev only replaced two of the 75 officials he inherited from Putin, a comment on his lack of power and Putin's reach. "He's a general without an army," she says.
Shevtsova also sees a resemblance between the Kremlinology of the Leonid Brezhnev years Brezhnev was head of the Soviet Union from 1964 until he died in 1982 and now. "We have personalized power now, as we did then," she says, "and we all have to remain guessers. We still are wondering who is behind the curtain."
Putin served two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, when he was prevented by term limitations from running again. He picked Medvedev, once his chief of staff, to run for president, and Medvedev not only succeeded him but appointed Putin as prime minister. Ever since there have been two big questions. Could Medvedev emerge as a politician with a mind of his own and the power to make decisions? With Putin again eligible, who would run for president in 2012?
Neither has said who will run, creating much back and forth about whether Medvedev has accrued any power or not since he assumed the presidency and whether there are signs of a rift between him and his mentor, which would indicate a new assertiveness.
The two men present very different personas, which critics call an attempt to reassure two different audiences. Medvedev, cast as liberal, appeals to the West, criticizing the capricious judicial system, vowing to combat corruption, calling for modernization of the economy by developing technology and attracting foreign investment. He tweets, he blogs, he flies across the Internet, iPad at hand. But what has he changed? Nothing, his critics answer.
"Mr. Zero," Shevtsova calls him. "There is no evidence Medvedev represents new, modern, value-oriented and transformative thinking. None."
Medvedev, Shevtsova suggests, would hardly differ from Putin even if he wielded total power. He was in charge during the second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which legal experts dismiss as a gross miscarriage of justice, he was in charge when lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention, he has been in charge as corruption has grown ever greater, she says.
Putin speaks directly to the domestic audience, vowing to raise pensions, protect the workingman and make Russia strong; he often tosses off comments playing to Russians who see the West as the source of much potential evil in the world.
But a rift? In December, Putin suggested that Khodorkovsky was guilty even before the verdict had come in on his second trial. Medvedev responded with a brisk comment about not interfering in the judicial process. Putin called the United Nations intervention in Libya a "medieval crusade." Medvedev called that remark "unacceptable." Medvedev ordered government officials to resign from the boards of public companies they were Putin's men.
Grigory Golosov, a political science professor in St. Petersburg, finds only the Khodorkovsky exchange revelatory. "It showed who the real decision maker is," he says, pointing out that Khodorkovsky was not only convicted but got the maximum sentence, "and of course Putin is."
Still, the evidence or lack thereof of a rift gets extensive attention in the media here and in the West. Here, if you're a political reporter, there's not much to write about if you stay away from the subject. Shevtsova says the Kremlin encourages the talk because it makes it seem as if the election offers a real choice, instead of what Putin decides.
And the idea of a rift is attractive in the West, which wants optimistic news from Russia and an engaging partner in Medvedev.
In Russia, apparently no theory is rejected as too far-fetched. When Vice President Biden visited Moscow in March, newspaper reports said he was here to tell Medvedev to run for president, and that the United States would placate Putin by getting him a job at the Internaional Olympic Committee.
Kryshtanovskaya suggests that the Kremlin may be staging signs of a rift as preliminary steps in developing a two-party system, not any time soon, certainly not before the March 2012 presidential election, but eventually.
And the Kremlinology already has been followed by glasnost, or openness, she says.
"We have glasnost all over the Internet," she says. "And there's freedom of speech, not for the elite, of course, but for ordinary people. For the decision-making elite, information is closed."
New York Times
May 9, 2011
Bulldogs Under the Rug? Signs of a Putin-Medvedev Rift
MOSCOW For three years, the power-sharing tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev purred along like a sports car, quieting skeptics who said that any division of executive authority in Russia would lead to instability. The ambiguous arrangement seemed to soothe tensions, allowing everyone, from pro-Western technocrats to hawkish hard-liners, to believe they were represented at the very top.
But lately the tandem has begun to hiccup and backfire. It is impossible to say whether trust has broken down between the two men, one of whom will increase his power in next spring's presidential election. But a universe of officials, businessmen and political hangers-on uncertain whether to show loyalty to one man, the other or both has "spent the whole last month on the verge of a nervous breakdown," the economist Vladislav L. Inozemtsev wrote last week in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Mr. Putin invented the arrangement in 2008 when term limits prevented him from seeking the presidency again, and it is largely his choice whether to continue it. He has tried to put a lid on speculation even while working to delay an announcement until the fall on who the presidential candidate will be, but he may be too late.
Winston Churchill compared Kremlin power struggles to bulldogs fighting under a carpet: "An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath, it is obvious who won."
That dynamic has returned in the past few weeks, as minor political figures began thrusting rumors into the public domain. Take the case of Konstantin F. Zatulin, a member of Parliament for the governing party, United Russia, which stripped him of a committee post after he vocally supported Mr. Putin's views on Libya over the president's, effectively driving a wedge between the two. He then began saying publicly that Mr. Medvedev had broken his agreement with Mr. Putin and was trying to undermine him.
"The oldest story in history has occurred here: having received grandiose authorities, a young president, and to a greater extent his inner circle and his family," are determined to keep them, Mr. Zatulin said in an interview in his ornate office. He said that Mr. Medvedev was backed by powerful industrialists, known as oligarchs, who hoped to reclaim the influence they lost under Mr. Putin.
"I think they are much more comfortable with a weak president than a strong one, and have found a person they can manipulate," Mr. Zatulin said.
He said distrust between the teams was so high that the tandem was unlikely to continue after the elections, and that Mr. Medvedev might use the single advantage he has over his mentor. "I cannot exclude that some of Medvedev's advisers consider that Medvedev, in order to win, should fire Putin from the position of prime minister," Mr. Zatulin said. "I can't confirm it, but it would be strange if they had not considered this possibility."
Not long after Mr. Zatulin's punishment was made public, an oddly symmetrical story appeared in the press. This time, it was Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political consultant, who said that he had been rebuked for saying that Mr. Putin should not return to the presidency. He said that officials in the Kremlin had complained for many months about his comments, which violated the unspoken order to "say nothing about a candidate until everything is decided." In mid-April they severed a 15-year relationship. "Putin and his team are very nervous about this kind of statement, probably more touchy than Medvedev's team," Mr. Pavlovsky said.
He said that there was no personal split between the two men "I can confirm this," he said but that the tandem had been carefully constructed to maintain balance, and that neither man's team was strong enough to end the standoff. He said that Mr. Putin began considering a return to the presidency because of "a virtual fear that some awful liberals will come to power" and weaken the strong state that Mr. Putin had built.
"Where are those liberals? They don't exist," Mr. Pavlovsky said. "This is the problem. I've been hearing about these liberals for 20 years."
For now, his main complaint is that paralysis over the candidate makes it impossible to get to work on substantive issues, like what path Russia should take after the elections. "It's absurd; debates are necessary today" about the next president's platform and his team, Mr. Pavlovsky said. "It's very difficult to make up a team without having a leader. It's like learning how to swim in a dry pool."
In these interviews, as in all of Russian politics, it is difficult to say what is real and what is artificial. Neither Mr. Zatulin nor Mr. Pavlovsky is a member of the leaders' inner circles, and their motives are unclear. Mr. Zatulin lost a powerful ally in September when Yuri M. Luzhkov was driven from his post as Moscow's mayor on the president's orders. Mr. Pavlovsky, meanwhile, has a 15-year résumé of virtuosic political gamesmanship.
But it is clear that the public gap between Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev has widened. First, they staked out different positions on NATO's operation in Libya, which Mr. Putin has passionately condemned. When Mr. Medvedev told Chinese television that the presidential candidate would be announced shortly, Mr. Putin contradicted him, making it clear he preferred to wait as long as possible.
History suggests that could be quite a long time. Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation on Dec. 31, 1999, a few days after parliamentary elections; in 2007, Mr. Putin identified Mr. Medvedev as his successor on Dec. 10, a few days after parliamentary elections. This year's parliamentary elections are scheduled for Dec. 4.
In the meantime, Moscow's political circles will be watching for bulldogs under the rug.
Mr. Putin stoked a new round of speculation on Friday when he announced the creation of a nationwide "popular front," which some saw as laying the groundwork for a possible presidential run. Mr. Medvedev has called a rare news conference for May 18, to the same effect.
Prolonged tension risks setting off a major split within the elite, said Dmitri K. Simes, a veteran Russia watcher who heads the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based think tank. He returned from a recent trip to Moscow struck by the shift in the political atmosphere, now rife with distrust. "Never forget the number of people who are playing double games," he said. "People run around saying one thing in the morning and another thing in the afternoon."