Casting Tsars: Medvedev and Putin will share parties and media coverage

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Some journalists and political analysts have been saying that the Medvedev-Putin tandem is certain to fall apart. Now a number of other newsmakers have joined the discussion.

As Kommersant-Vlast magazine reports, the first to do so was Igor Yurgens, vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE). In an interview with Reuters on June 19, Yurgens said that President Dmitri Medvedev has encountered increasing resistance from hostile Kremlin clans in his attempts to keep his promises about the rule of law, fighting corruption, and expanding civil liberties. “A quiet war is under way, and it will continue for some time,” said Yurgens. He described the faction opposing Medvedev as people who “will always strive to control assets, promote their own proteges, and claim the leading management posts in the economy, since they don’t trust the market, don’t trust liberals, and don’t trust the West.” According to Yurgens, Medvedev needs to form his own coalition in order to defeat this faction; otherwise “he will lose, as some reformers in the past have lost.” Yurgens urged Medvedev to act cautiously, since if he “goes too far, Putin will correct the policy course.”

Vladislav Surkov, first deputy head of the presidential administration, addressed members of the pro-Kremlin Young Russia movement and the New People organization at a meeting in the Kremlin on June 18. As the Gazeta newspaper reports, he argued that the authorities need these movements and they will continue to be needed while Medvedev is president. The argument went something like this: “Russia is heading into a fairly difficult stage of political transformation, with increasing unfriendly pressure from abroad and attempts by certain destructive domestic forces to drive a wedge between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.”

Although Medvedev was quick to confirm (also in a Reuters interview) that the tandem remains strong, and Igor Yurgens and Maxim Mishchenko (leader of Young Russia, which posted the Surkov quote on its website) declared that their words had been misunderstood, journalists remained curious. On Thursday, in an interview with journalists from G8 countries, Medvedev faced questions about the “destructive forces” which are trying to drive a wedge between him and Putin.

Medvedev said: “I’m sure that a certain number of politicians don’t like the current configuration of government, and a certain part of the public also finds it unsatisfactory. That’s normal. Listing destructive forces by name would be ridiculous. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. Everything is much simpler in real life. Obviously, any developed state has a system of political competition. The important thing is to ensure that political competition doesn’t turn into brutal and unconstitutional confrontation. Our country had enough of that in the 20th Century.”

According to Gazeta.ru, however, there could be “constructive” as well as “destructive” forces trying to drive a wedge between Medvedev and Putin in this situation. After all, any of the following moves might be described as “driving a wedge”: bringing back legal politics, reviewing some of the Putin era’s more notorious criminal cases, any public or private attempt to convince Medvedev that he doesn’t have to maintain all aspects of a policy course that isn’t quite as good and proper (to put it mildly) as we have been told all these years.

According to Gazeta, the state of the economy could cause the tandem to break up. The federal authorities are facing a dilemma: they can either start a resolute and comprehensive battle against inflation, or hope that economic growth will take care of inflation eventually. The economic policy arsenal will depend on that choice. If the authorities choose to fight inflation, they will have to put the brakes on state spending; if they do not, they will need to use state investments to stimulate growth. Either way, this will not be a one-off squeeze on the money supply or an injection of state reserves into the market; the government would have to maintain a smooth trend. Journalist Nikolai Vardul says: “Judging by his budget address, President Medvedev has chosen to fight inflation. But Prime Minister Putin, judging by his speech to United Russia activists at Lesnye Dali, considers it wrong to fight inflation with measures that cast any doubt on prospects of higher economic growth in the immediate future. The clash here is self-evident.”

Vardul emphasizes that this is not just a clash between Russia’s most popular politician and his successor as president. The new center of power is the United Russia party, controlled by Putin himself. This kind of ruling hierarchy is unprecedented in post-Soviet Russia. If Putin seriously sets about reinforcing it, this hierarchy could be what brings him back to the presidency.

United Russia sees itself as nothing less than a member of a ruling triumvirate. In an interview with Itogi, Senior Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov (United Russia’s unofficial chief ideologue) said that the three pillars of power are “Medvedev, Putin, and United Russia,” and “no matter how great the role played by individuals, this triangle leaves no room for any political eccentricities by any of the three – since the other two parts of the construct would never allow it.” He added: “This may be described as Putin’s stroke of genius.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta predicts that United Russia may find itself facing a real competitor: Putin and Medvedev are getting serious about establishing at least a two-party system in Russia. The Kremlin and the Cabinet are working on this with the leaders of United Russia and Just Russia. However, a high-ranking source notes that this does not entail any rivalry between two centers of power; it means doubling efforts to transform the existing political system. According to the newspaper’s sources, Medvedev and Putin have decided to share these responsibilities: Medvedev is preparing Just Russia for its new role (rumor has it that this party will see some leadership changes), and Putin is working with United Russia.

Alexander Kynev, regional programs manager at the Information Policy Development Foundation, says that extra promotion for Just Russia would seem quite logical, and would work in favor of President Medvedev: “In terms of political logic, boosting the political weight of the national leadership – including the president – entails reducing his dependence on one political party. If any party other than United Russia is strengthened, it would be a step toward a more balanced system – making the president look more independent and self-sufficient.”

Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Political Information Center, points to the false assumption that the president ought to “stand above” all parties; Mukhin argues that this idea is now working against Medvedev and weakening him. “Just Russia is perfectly capable of aspiring to the presidential party role. Medvedev might choose not to join it, as Putin did, but he could rely on it for support.”

The papers are continuing to monitor media coverage of the president and the prime minister. According to the Vremya Novostei newspaper, Russia is seeing the start of some tacit media competition between its two leaders – with their competing ratings.

According to Vremya Novostei, Medvedev seems to be winning so far – in quantitative terms – as the two tsars continue their media duel. According to the Medialogy monitoring agency and the SKAN-Interfax database, Medvedev made half again as many appearances as Putin on the five national television networks between May 12 (Putin’s first day as prime minister) and June 15: 548 and 328 times respectively. According to SKAN-Interfax, Medvedev was mentioned 1,568 times and Putin was mentioned 1,125 times on radio and television. In qualitative terms, however, Putin is still in the lead. The VTsIOM polling agency reports that Medvedev’s trust rating is 40%; the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) puts it at 45%. Putin’s trust rating is still between 60% and 70%.

The Vedomosti newspaper reports that discussions are under way in the Kremlin and the Cabinet about how President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin will divide the formats of their public appearances. The newspaper obtained this information from Kremlin and Cabinet staff sources. One official said that Medvedev is unlikely to adapt the formats Putin used as president. According to this source, it would be more logical to come up with a new type of public event “to suit Medvedev,” something he would find comfortable – such as online conferences, perhaps.

Vremya Novostei notes that Putin seems well aware of television’s role in his battle to retain the real levers of government. At a meeting with United Russia’s Duma faction at the Lesnye Dali hotel outside Moscow, Putin expressed the wish to hold regular “direct line” question-and-answer conferences with citizens.

According to Vedomosti, Medvedev and Putin will probably start trying out their new communication formats this autumn. The government official said: “As yet, we don’t know exactly what Putin’s communication with the people will be like. This will be clarified by autumn.”

Early autumn is also when Medvedev is expected to make his debut in a new format for public appearances, according to a Kremlin source.

Vremya Novostei makes a prediction: “If both of our national leaders start holding online dialogues, we may see an entertaining interactive show. A real casting process for tsars.”

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