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memri
September 11, 2017 No.
7086

Can The Putin-Medvedev Tandem Endure?

The Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev team has lasted  since 2008 when Putin chose Medvedev to fill the presidency that he was compelled to vacate for a term since Putin was constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term. After one term, Medvedev retired from the presidency in favor of Putin and became prime minister. While Putin has retained substantial popularity, Medvedev, who as prime minister is responsible for Russia's beleaguered economy, is unpopular. Moreover he has been the target of an expose' by Alexey Navalny accusing Medvedev of corruption. This raises the problem that in the upcoming presidential elections where Putin is a shoe-in, Medvedev may become an electoral embarrassment for Putin and reduce the size of his landslide victory. Russia's president like his French counterpart can appoint and dismiss prime ministers, raising the issue of whether Putin would prefer to go to the elections with a fresh face as prime minister.

On August 31, 2017, the veteran political journalist Mikhail Rostovsky wrote an article for Moskovsky Komsomolets titled "For and Against an Early Dissolution of the Government" exploring this issue. Although Medvedev has clearly lost the majesty of his office and there is a ready option of kicking the former law professor upstairs into a prestigious sinecure in the country's judiciary, the issue is not so clear cut. Putin likes his prime ministers weak and may not want to give Navalny the satisfaction of bringing down Medvedev.

MEMRI's translation of Rostovsky's article[1] follows below.


Mikhail Rostovsky (Source: Mk.ru)

"This year, September 1 won’t be a holiday only for teachers, children and their parents. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev will mark his own informal personal anniversary on The Day of Knowledge. Until now, the record for the longest time in the office of prime minister in modern Russia belonged to Victor Chernomyrdin — 5 years and 116 days. But on autumn's first day, Medvedev will beat and exceed this record.

"From a purely statistical point of view, this may be considered a quite impressive achievement. If one counts Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar, there have been 11 full-fledged heads of government in Russia since the collapse of the USSR. If one puts together the amount of time in office of six of them, the sum total will still be almost twice as small as Dmitry Medvedev’s incumbency. But does Medvedev’s September record guarantee his staying in the White House until May 2018, when the constitutional term of his government expires?

"In the past years, Putin has twice already unexpectedly changed the head of the cabinet mere months before the presidential elections. Could the same fate await the current government? Of course, we cannot enter Putin’s head to find the exact answer to this question. But we can do something else – try and model VVP’s thought process on this issue, and find the arguments for and against pros and cons of Medvedev’s early exit from the White House. "

The Prime Minister Serves At The President's Pleasure

"On May 27, 1974, the new president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, offered the post of prime minister to a well-known politician Jacques Chirac. Chirac agreed, but the very next day he came to the president with a message, the meaning of which may seem totally absurd to anyone not familiar with modern French political traditions. This is how Giscard d’Estaing describes this scene in his memoirs:

"'When, the next day, he enters the office, I see a slim black leather case in his hands. In it, there is a folded sheet of paper, which I unfold. In the top corner, I notice the stamp of the prime minister’s office. A few lines down: “I hereby have the honor of offering you my letter of resignation from the post of prime minister and the resignation of all the members of government in accordance with Article 8 of the Constitution”. Jacques Chirac begins to comment on the contents of the document: “Mr President, I have brought you the letter of resignation. There is no date on it. It means that you have a free hand and can put an end to my incumbency, as well as that of my government, at any moment you deem convenient'". [2]


Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing with his first prime minister Jacques Chirac (Lopinion.fr)

"Russia has no tradition of the prime minister “committing political suicide” on the day of his appointment. In France, the president’s right to dismiss the government is not clearly stated in the Constitution. But our fundamental law is unequivocal about this. As stated in Article 83: “The President of the RF appoints the head of government with the approval of the State Duma, has the right to co-chair government meetings, makes the decision to dismiss the government”.

"But here is what unites our political system with the French one: in both countries, the ability to change the prime minister at any moment is one of the most important and significant political instruments in the hands of the president.

"In any country, a situation arises from time to time when the political process seems to hit a glass wall, and the mechanism of state administration begins to run on idle. The simplest thing a president may do in this situation is to dismiss the prime minister and thus mix all the cards in the political deck. The fact that the real results from the new government’s activity will be felt only with time is irrelevant. The powerful psychological effect of the replacement of the prime minister is felt almost at once.

"For instance, I deeply respect the current Kremlin curator of public policy, Sergey Kiriyenko. He is a mature, one may say well-seasoned, statesman, who always projects utmost self-confidence. But as a former correspondent of the government press pool, I remember perfectly: when a young and inexperienced fuel and energy minister Kiriyenko was unexpectedly appointed acting prime minister in spring 1998, the White House seemed to be diminished in my eyes, losing its significance and the aura of power that characterized it previously. It seemed that the building had been orphaned and lost its owner.

"Equally vivid images come to my mind when I remember Viktor Chernomyrdin’s brief return as acting prime minister in August-September 1998. In those days, I entered one of the “holy of holies” of the White House for the first time — the office of the government chief of staff. As you may guess, this place was neither modest in size nor austere in decorations. But during that visit, I was not overwhelmed by the luxuriousness of the working premises of our superiors. Instead, small but revealing details stayed in my memory – the ones that seemed to cry out that there was no real power in that office.

"For example, it seemed to me that the lacquered table top of the large conference table in the center of the office was scratched. I was impressed even more when suddenly, during our conversation, somebody called the acting government chief of staff on his secret direct landline. Just like in the famous joke: “Hallo, is this the laundry?” – “What the hell? It’s the ministry of culture!” – it was a man who wanted to talk to a tailor but had dialled the wrong number.

"A few months after the above episode, when Yevgeny Primakov’s cabinet of ministers was already functioning, I found myself in the same office. I don’t think that in the atmosphere of crisis of those days anybody had the time or desire to replace furniture or telephone numbers in that room. But on that occasion, I no longer noticed details revealing that it was not a celestial being but an ordinary man who was sitting in the office. The office was filled with the aura of power – the aura that could be felt almost on a physical level.

"All these episodes are nothing but my deeply subjective personal feelings. But my feelings clearly corresponded to the overall psychological atmosphere in the country. When Yeltsin suddenly dismissed Chernomyrdin in the spring of 1998, everyone felt the air leave the Russian political system as if it were a rubber boat with a hole in it. When in the fall of the same year, no less unexpectedly, Primakov ended up in the prime minister’s chair, the elements of the Russian state system again seemed massive structures of strong metal and solid rock.

"Perhaps all these prime ministerial turbulences were felt all the more acutely because the president at that time was only nominally fit to fulfil his direct duties. But even at present, when one can boldly say “Putin is our everything!”, the incumbent of the office of head of government has not lost his capacity to strongly influence the country's psychological climate.

"Recently, I met with a highly esteemed and retired Western diplomat, who, during the active phase of his career, occupied the post of his country’s ambassador in Moscow. During our heated discussion of the twists and turns of Russian politics, my interlocutor referred to the prime minister of the RF only as 'Dima Medvedev'. And of course, this did not mean that the former ambassador was on a first-name basis with Medvedev and regularly played cards with him. This pronounced familiarity was a very subtle reflection of the way the head of the Russian government is treated both in our country and abroad.

"Let’s play a game of associations. What descriptions come to your head when you hear the name 'Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev'? Here are my associations: light-weight, skimming over the surface, elegant speeches and a genuine lack of vision…

"This is the way the former British finance minister Norman Lamont described the government he had just been dismissed from in 1993: “We give the impression of being in office but not in power”. Today, one can say the same about Medvedev’s cabinet and the prime minister himself.

"Of course, “in office but not in power” – this is exactly where Vladimir Putin prefers to keep his prime ministers. The president’s desire to keep the prime minister on a tight leash is not an exclusively Russian political phenomenon. Here is, for example, what Valéry Giscard d’Estaing wrote about it: “I knew where the rift in the institutions of the Fifth Republic (the current French state - MK) lay: between the implied but very vaguely defined power, belonging to the president of the republic, and the practical decision-making, this prerogative of the prime minister, where the risk of mutual suspicions and conflicts always exists.

"If mistrust sneaks into such a political system, the rift becomes much wider. The only defense from this danger is in the prime minister’s loyalty to the president of the republic. Sometimes this loyalty borders on self-sacrifice!”

"Vladimir Putin, however, does not simply demand self-sacrifice from his prime ministers. His working principle is to keep a relatively weak figure in this office, one that lacks a broad social support base society. If one looks at the situation from this angle, this is what we get: Medvedev, in his current weakened and discredited state, is an ideal prime minister for VVP! But this principle – a weak prime minister who is convenient for Putin – works only until the moment when the weak prime minister becomes a weight on Putin’s legs and starts to pull him down in the eyes of the public opinion."


Is Medvedev still Putin's cup of tea? (Image: Youtube.com)

"Today, a political situation has developed in Russia that is equally emotionally uncomfortable for both the authorities and the population. Nobody doubts that Vladimir Putin will win the presidential election. Moreover, the majority of the pubic, in my assessment, considers such an electoral outcome to be the sole correct one. But it seems to me that this support of Putin is not based on a certainty that VVP will radically change the situation in Russia for the better during his next term. The basis of the current support is the certainty of most of the population that there is no alternative to VVP, or that if this alternative exists, it is many times worse than Putin.

"In the short term, this situation cannot be called dangerous for the Kremlin. But in the long term, or even medium term, this situation is fraught with a real political catastrophe for the authorities. If Putin is perceived as the “stagnation president”[stagnation was the term used for the Brezhnev era], his career will enter the phase of slow decline.

"The current Kremlin strategy – “our president is excellent, but the ministers and governors are so-so” – has limited resources, which may well be exhausted even before the presidential election. It is easiest to stop or even reverse the process of erosion of the authorities’ position by a pre-emptive strike – a dismissal of government, which is perceived as the symbol of modern Russian stagnation, and parachuting a team into the White House that has something to offer our society. That's why I believe in the possibility of replacing Medvedev before the presidential election.

"Putin will by no means humiliate or offend his former partner in the ruling tandem. Formally, Dmitry Anatolyevich may even be promoted. A firm belief formed in the Russian elite a long time ago: the chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin and the chief justice of the Supreme Court Vyacheslav Lebedev, born respectively in February and August 1943, are not offered well-deserved retirement for a specific reason: to have the opportunity at any moment to unite their seats under Medvedev. But all these are details. The most important thing is that a new person may appear at the post of the head of Russian government ahead of schedule."

"The Theory Of The Third Cauldron

"A former prime minister of a large CIS country recently told me a joke with a deep political meaning. A modern Dante goes on a trip to hell. Soon he is brought to a place with three boiling cauldrons filled with sinners. The lid of one of them is held, with great difficulty, by a dozen demons. On the lid of another, a single bored demon is settled comfortably. And that of the third is easily held in place without any external security.

"Amazed, Dante asks his guide to explain what this is all about. And here is what he hears in reply: in the first cauldron, there are sinners from country A. As soon as one of them manages to get out, he pulls all the others out after him.  In the second cauldron, sinners from country B are held. If one of them gets out, he waves his hand at others and abandons them to their fate. And in the third cauldron, there are sinners from country C. As soon as one of them gets closer to the lid from the inside, all the others pile on to him and throw him down.

"I’d like to emphasize: I did not cite this joke here for any national or religious reasons. I have told it because, in my opinion, it perfectly illustrates what's currently transpiring on the Russian political stage – or, rather, behind the curtains of this stage. And what is happening there is, as usual, much more interesting, than what the audience – that is, ordinary citizens – can see.

"There remain still over six years until the 2024 presidential election – the one where we must elect Putin’s successor. But all the ambitious political players are already looking at the presidential seat with concealed lust. It’s another matter that they have to hide this lust not only carefully, but extremely carefully.

"One can only fight effectively for the right to become Putin’s successor if one diligently pretends that one is not fighting for anything, does not have any long-term ambitions and is 100 percent concentrated on performing one’s current official duties.

"Putin, as is well known, does not like people with initiative, and those enterprising people who aspire to his office stand every chance of drawing the presidential wrath upon their heads.

"You will ask: how is it even possible to fight for the right to be VVP’s successor in these conditions? Very easily – in the manner of the third cauldron from the joke. In practice, it may look, for example, as a vehement accusation by a public figure who somehow found his way into a high-level meeting. Something like “look more closely at this alleged ally of yours, Vladimir Vladimirovich! He is after your office! And he talks about it openly!”

"Another variant is possible: a no less vehement flare-up of popular anger due to the plans of a certain mayor to radically reorganize the life of the city entrusted to him. The subject I am hinting at is quite complex, controversial and multifaceted. But one thing is already crystal clear. Part of the people’s anger is the result of blunders in informational work, made when the reorganization program was disclosed to the public. But the other part of the spontaneous burst of discontent is a direct result of the information attack initiated by this official’s competitors.

"There is also an external, “non-establishment” aspect to the fight for the right to become Putin’s successor, which is now practically monopolized by Alexei Navalny.

"If you think that I have deviated from the subject of possibility (or impossibility) of Medvedev’s early retirement and am talking about something completely different, I assure you: in a moment, I will return to the right track. In the world of Russian politics, everything is very closely interconnected, sometimes in most bizarre fashion. How does this plot twist grab you: Alexei Navalny in the role of Dmitry Medvedev’s best political friend? On the face of it, this statement may seem the embodiment of madness: it was Navalny’s film that struck a painful blow to the prime minister’s reputation, turned him into a target for attacks of all kinds.

"But let’s look at the situation from another angle: how would it look if soon after the release of Navalny’s film, Putin sends Medvedev into an early retirement from the office of the prime minister? An obvious answer suggests itself: as a Kremlin capitulation to Navalny, as an acknowledgement of the fact that the supreme corruption fighter has managed to get the political scalp of the second [highest] man in the state. A real dialectic develops: the result of Navalny’s efforts is Medvedev’s abrupt weakening, coupled with a sharp increase in his political survivability as the prime minister.

"According to the theory of the third cauldron, it is not clear what kind of figure Putin would like to see as Medvedev’s successor in the office of prime minister. In our political circles, the following version is very popular: the person who will replace Medvedev in the White House has the best chances to become Putin’s successor in 2024. But I don’t believe it, because it fully contradicts the logic of the political process' development over the next few years.

"As we have already determined, Putin does not like it when somebody breathes down his neck from the prime minister’s seat. Will he make an exception in the case of Medvedev’s successor and allow him to play at being a crown prince for the next six years? Won’t this turn Putin into a lame duck prematurely?

"No, I don’t believe that Putin will change his habits. And even if this miracle happened, the heir apparent, crowned too early, would probably not keep this rank until 2024. His fellow inmates in the cauldron will go out of their way to create the conditions for the upstart to break his neck, politically speaking.

"The conclusion one may draw from all this is the following: don’t mix apples and oranges. The man who will replace Medvedev as prime minister and the man who will replace Putin as president are most likely not one and the same person. Putin’s successor will become clear only on the eve of the 2024 parliamentary election. And until that moment, Putin will keep the elite in suspense with the aid of an informal successors’ race – a game he became adept at in the period prior to Medvedev’s advent to the Kremlin in 2008.

"As for the man who will replace Medvedev in the White House, he will hardly cut a glamorous role– the role of a 'fresh face', 'one who clears away the debris', a resuscitator of our economy, [but] a figure that can be easily sacrificed if necessary.

"As for the man who will replace Medvedev in the White House, he will hardly cut a glamorous role– the role of a 'fresh face', 'one who clears away the debris', a resuscitator of our economy, [but] a figure that can be easily sacrificed if necessary.

"The circle of apolitical economic managers currently favored by Putin is roughly known: the Central Bank Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina, the Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov, the minister of economic development Maxim Oreshkin. But I would not automatically consider them to be leading candidates for the office of prime minister.


Central Bank Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina, an example of the disposable apolitical economic manager preferred by Putin (Image: Komersant.ru)

"When it comes to disclosing the name of the new head of government, Putin behaves like a circus magician. His mission, seemingly, is to pull something completely unexpected out of the hat, and your mission as the distinguished audience is to gasp in unison and exclaim: “We could not even imagine this of him!” Let us not ruin all the fun for our guarantor: let us wait for him to amaze us again.

"Barak Obama’s first presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said the following about the heavy burden of the US head of state: 'If it’s about the choice between good and bad, this decision will be made elsewhere. All the decisions made in the Oval Office are about the choice between bad and worse'.

"The choice Vladimir Putin will have to make (or the choice he has already made) concerning the fate of his record-setting prime minister, belongs in this category too. Politically, Dmitry Medvedev has long ago become like a suitcase without a handle for the president. But his early retirement from the office of the head of government is fraught with political risks for the Kremlin. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, let us gird ourselves with patience! In this one-man theater, all the RF's citizens, except for Vladimir Putin, are merely spectators. "

 


[1] Mk.ru, August 31, 2017.

[2] Giscard D'Estaing was the first president in the Fifth Republic who was not the candidate of the Gaullist party. The Gaullist party formed the bulk of Giscard's coalition in the National Assembly while Giscard's Republican Independents were the junior partner. Chirac, a Gaullist,  could have used his party's legislative strength to drive a hard bargain with Giscard but instead declared loyalty to Charles De Gaulle's legacy that insisted on a strong presidential system. At other times when the majority in the National Assembly was in the hands of the opposition the French practice has been cohabitation where the president stomached a rival prime minister until the approach of elections. No such problems beset Putin as all the parties in the Russian legislature are pro-government.