Dmitri Medvedev: real successor or decoy?

Dmitri Medvedev has been in the spotlight over the past month, positioned as the favorite to become President Putin’s successor. But Medvedev’s prominence might be no more than a facade intended to reassure or mislead the West about policy trends and the intentions of Russia’s elites.

Late January was marked by an important and long-awaited event in Russian politics: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev emerged from the shadows to take up a starting position for the presidential race. Practically all the experts had picked Medvedev as a favorite among Putin’s potential successors, along with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

“Putin’s potential successors” are quite different from “Yeltsin’s potential successors.” In the Yeltsin era the “successors” were particular individuals – one after another, and usually not for long: Nemtsov, Kirienko, Stepashin, Rushailo, and so on. The eventual choice turned out to be unexpected and mysterious – and still looks that way even by the standards of today, when Putin’s second term is drawing to a close. “Putin’s successors” are a certain cohort of people in Putin’s inner circle, any of whom might be chosen; but a) there are several of them simultaneously, and b) Putin himself has never named any of them as his successor, although he has promised repeatedly to do so, publicly and otherwise.

The reasons for this difference are unlikely to be found in any personal character traits of Yeltsin and Putin. They are probably due to a kind of “demand from the system” – substantially different in 2007 from what it was in 1999, for example. Eight years ago this demand focused on safeguarding the outcomes of “market-democratic reforms” in general and privatization in particular, along with personal safety guarantees for Yeltsin and his Family. Consequently, any politician capable of providing those safeguards and demonstrating their effectiveness would automatically get the presidency.

And that’s what happened, eventually. Yet it should be acknowledged that the search for an appropriate person took a little too long; Putin emerged only just in time. And the defamation of his potential and actual rivals was so much like natural history that the subjective will involved in the process still seems somewhat uncertain. But later on, from summer 1999, everything went smoothly for Putin – and it’s still going smoothly, aside from a few incidents. Even the tragedies of the Kursk submarine sinking, the Moscow theater hostage-taking, and the Beslan school siege haven’t had any impact on the reputation or popularity of Russia’s second president, leading the press to give him the honorably ironic title of “Teflon president.”

So there was a precise and unconditional “demand from the system” back in 1999, and Putin has fulfilled it just as unconditionally: the “market reforms” in Russia are continuing, privatization outcomes remain essentially unrevised, and Yeltsin is still a welcome and honored guest at Kremlin Cup tennis matches.

But the “demand from the system” has changed substantially during Putin’s eight years in power, losing its erstwhile precision and focus. At the risk over-simplifying, one might even say that the “demand from the system” is now mostly about shaping the demand from the system itself. The authorities and the rich have clearly ceased to fear any possibility that “the workers” might turn around and “expropriate the expropriators.” Yet even as their assets and influence grow, Russia’s elites are now experiencing a rapidly-rising fear of being swiftly and irreversibly excluded from all the pleasures of life in the West. The question of what to do about this has not yet become critical or vital among the elites – judging by their investment, recreation, and inheritance choices – but it is already being raised. In 1999, “demand from the system” focused on an “iron-handed executor” – which explains the eventual choice between “Rushailo the cop” and “Putin the chekist.” In 2007, there is demand for an ideologue – a kind of Moses the Prophet, so to speak (although Old Testament parallels aren’t entirely inappropriate here), capable of “leading the Chosen People out of Egypt to the Promised Land.”

So far, the only prophet-like concept expressed aloud has been Vladislav Surkov’s “sovereign democracy” concept. This is based on two theses – one external, one internal – which the Russian elite finds entirely understandable and acceptable. The external thesis is the proposal (partly based on arguments in “Russia and Democracy” by philosopher A. Savin) that since no two peoples in the world are identical, there cannot possibly be any one “absolute” model of democracy. The internal psychological thesis in this concept is even more familiar to Russia’s elites: in effect, “we’re better and tougher than anyone.” Admittedly, this bears no resemblance to reality.

Firstly, this is due to Russia’s relative weakness in the international arena; secondly, it’s because the elites themselves are disunited and split. The Kremlin’s masters in the West are displeased by the Kremlin’s declarations about “sovereign democracy” and claims to the role of “energy superpower”; this displeasure is being shown more and more strongly, especially since the Democrats won the mid-term elections in the United States. There’s no point in listing all the signs of the West’s displeasure and counteraction here; what’s far more important is the reaction of Russia’s elites. In our view, the chief element of this reaction has been Dmitri Medvedev’s emergence from the shadows.

Medvedev has been displayed in several simultaneous and sweeping ways over the past month: to the Russian establishment via his address to the Duma, to the Russian public via the Kommersant newspaper, and to the Western establishment via his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But in the context of the direct battle for power in the 2007-08 electoral cycle, all this looks like a political false start for Medvedev himself.

First of all, it’s too early. We still have at least a few months to wait until the real power-struggle begins. At any rate, the regional legislature elections on March 11 are clearly supposed to be the final rehearsal; and even there, the exact results won’t be as important as the trends. If the Just Russia party starts taking a substantially larger part of the vote, United Russia might be in for a tough time: United Russia played the decisive role in passing a package of laws that made Russia’s grim socio-economic situation even worse, so this party could easily be turned into a scapegoat.

Tellingly, any pressure in the regions from parties like the Communist Party, Yabloko, or even the LDPR actually makes Just Russia’s electoral prospects more favorable, since it’s claiming a monopoly on the “opposition” and “alternative” niche with regard to United Russia, the currently dominant Kremlin party. And the same effect is produced by United Russia’s attempts to obstruct Just Russia’s unification process and discredit this party as its chief political rival.

Under the circumstances, Medvedev is obviously taking an entirely unjustified and even unnecessary risk by tying his potential presidential prospects to United Russia. From this standpoint, he could have afforded to wait until late March or mid-April. What’s more, there’s an old Eastern saying: “the first to draw his sword will be the first to die.” Positioning Medvedev as Putin’s “successor” so early doesn’t improve his actual chances of becoming the successor; rather the reverse. And since Medvedev has had to take such a risky step, despite all these considerations, we can only conclude that the major motive prompting him to do so was Davos – where it was necessary to present the West with some sort of “alternative” Kremlin policy program.

So Medvedev’s move was primarily aimed at mediation between the Kremlin and the West, rather than the presidential race. In other words, Russia’s “prophets” have gone to do homage to the “judges” of globalism – bearing gifts (only virtual gifts as yet, but quite specific). And these gifts have delighted the West; at the Davos forum, Medvedev received the “credit of confidence” that was once denied to Gennadi Zyuganov.

A detailed examination of the Medvedev version of the Kremlin’s concept for Russia’s future is yet to come, apparently; but its main advantages and disadvantages are already clear.

The most important advantage is its attitude to Russia. Russia is not regarded as an object, as in the Yeltsin era (“the state as a marketplace”); neither is it regarded as a subject, as in the Putin era (“we are the state”). Rather, Russia is treated as a project: the aim is Russia’s purposeful integration into the world economy, based on the concept of a “nation state” providing large volumes of hydrocarbon exports.

In his speech at the Davos forum, Medvedev proposed a three-in-one model for the Russia of the future: diversifying the national economy, building modern infrastructure, and shaping a “knowledge-based economy.”

None of these three positions could possibly raise any objections from any right-minded economist or politician. But the detailed explanations Medvedev provided were clearly adjusted to fit the expectations of the Kremlin’s Western masters. Firstly, he stressed Russia’s unconditional entry into the global economic and political system, with no more emphasis on the “sovereign” nature of Russian democracy. Secondly, he noted the policy of raising all domestic prices, including energy prices, to “world levels.” Thirdly, he said that Western investment on “maximally free” terms would provide most of the resources for Russia’s modernization.

All this certainly facilitated the very positive reception Medvedev got from members of the Western (primarily American) establishment. However, it is also sure to confront him with additional questions at home: whether this concept is consistent with Russia’s national interests and strategic development prospects.

Some of the expressions used by Medvedev – “no more free gas,” for example – essentially indicate attempts to completely commercialize Gazprom’s approach to both the domestic market and CIS countries. This immediately raises a question about the principles of structuring the strategic area around Russia. If we take a strict approach to eliminating any and all pricing preferences in selling energy resources to our CIS neighbors, they are sure to retaliate – primarily in the area of defense cooperation. In fact, our former allies and present “partners” are already doing so.

Russia’s use of military facilities in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine, and Belarus will become very problematic, requiring Russia to either spend more money or abandon its military presence in those regions – that is, abandon Russia’s “imperial attributes” as such. And the lack of this geopolitical resource would disrupt the plans Medvedev described for a “ruble zone,” with the Russian ruble attaining the status of a world reserve currency.

But the chief disadvantage of Medvedev’s Davos speech was the real-world context in which he delivered it. While Medvedev was making his solo performance in Davos and receiving applause, Putin was in India on a working visit, sorting out the priority areas for ongoing bilateral cooperation with “Asia’s second giant.” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was urgently summoned to India to work on aspects of cooperation in the area of military technology.

In other words, the Kremlin is already well aware that the fate of the world is not being decided in Davos, but in regions far removed from the Swiss Alps. Additional evidence of this is the recently-proposed idea of forming a “gas OPEC” – already discussed by two major natural gas producers, Iran and Algeria, and apparently supported by China. The Kremlin’s refusal to join this formation – quite likely, in light of Medvedev’s concept – could result in Gazprom losing its Central Asian gas suppliers, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. That would certainly cause some serious export difficulties for Gazprom, the Kremlin’s chief corporation, where Medvedev is the chairman of the board.

Thus, we may say that the Kremlin has made a fairly successful attempt, in tactical terms, to dampen down the anti-Russian fire in the West – by moving Medvedev to center stage as “Agent 2007” and bringing out liberal-market reinforcements like Chubais, Gref, and Co. In practice, however, the potential implementation of this “Davos scenario” in its pure form carries additional and largely unacceptable risks for the Russian state and Russian society, in the present and especially in the future.