In the next days Medvedev seemed to hit back. Speaking at a business forum in Sochi, Medvedev referred to a 2008 incident when then prime minister Putin promised to “send a doctor and a prosecutor” to the billionaire owner of steel and coal producer Mechel who failed to attend an industry meeting with Putin because of illness. At the time, Medvedev called for officials to stop “scaring businessmen.” Medvedev now revived the disagreement, saying: “I think that in modern Russia, if we talk about business, unequivocal orders are being made in different ways, let's say, in proposals to send a doctor in for a cure. Russian business knows what I mean ... I wish we (would) start learning to live in a different way.”
Then, at a Cabinet meeting, Medvedev reminded all that when he “worked as president”, he “never liked (the budget) either” but “realized how difficult it was to glue together a budget, especially in the conditions of a crisis or in a post-crisis or pre-crisis situation.” Finance Minister Anton Siluanov then proposed bolstering revenues by taking almost all dividends from the state oil and gas giant RosNeftGaz, chaired by Medvedev’s traditionalist opponent Igor Sechin, who wants the company to use the dividends to buy up companies during the upcoming privatization. This conflict ups the ante in the growing tussle between the liberal government and traditionalists in the presidential administration, complicating Putin’s arbitration role. All this comes on the background of growing rumours that Putin is preparing to sack his tandem protégé.
There have been other differences inside the tandem over key policy issues in the past, with tension emerging over both foreign and domestic policy. For example, commenting on the second trial of billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovski in 2009-10, then prime minister Putin stated publicly that “criminals should sit in prison.” Medvedev quickly responded that the country’s president should not comment on ongoing trials, since this exerts improper pressure on the courts.
In March 2011 Medvedev decided to use Russia’s veto as a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council to block the US-backed resolution establishing a no fly zone over Libya in order to prevent the slaughter of the anti-Qadaffi rebels. Putin came out calling into question the wisdom of Medvedev’s decision, saying the UN’s resolution “resembles medieval calls for crusades.” Medvedev hastily called a press conference within hours, donning a fighter pilot’s jacket outside his Gorky presidential residence to counter Putin’s assertion. He emphasized: “I think we all need to be careful in our evaluations. In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that in essence lead to a clash of civilizations, such as crusades and so forth -- this is unacceptable.”
Given all of the above and other rhetorical and the policy differences represented by Medvedev’s reforms, it is time to examine the possibility that matters inside the tandem may not be so simple and stable as observers have portrayed them – Medvedev as Putin’s loyal puppet holding his presidential chair warm until 2012.
Vladimir Putin’s September 2011 decision to run for a third term has been interpreted by almost all Russia observers as an inevitable pre-planned ‘castling’. This hypothesis – and it is nothing more than a hypothesis, one often informed by political bias and false assumption – is a problematic one, to say the least.
First of all, as I and others have emphasized, Putin’s dissertation at St. Petersburg State University suggests a management style that emphasizes strategic and tactical flexibility and maneuverability, leaving the maximal room for change of strategic direction in response to the environment. Accordingly, it is not in Putin’s character to set a major move in stone four years ahead of time. One should recall the long delay in announcing who the Kremlin’s presidential candidate last year and the panic it was sowing within the elite. The delay was a result of Putin’s indecision, not his decisiveness.
As I argued four years ago, Putin designated Dmitry Medvedev to run in 2008 and hoped gradual reforms would allow both a rapprochement between regime and state and his departure from politics in a term or two. I argue now that Putin’s plan to gradually unleash Putin and liberalization was confounded by Medvedev’s growing desire for an independent political identity, his corresponding pursuit of his own political agenda, and a series of developments that in Putin’s estimation seemed to bode ill should Medvedev remain in the presidency.
Both the lateness of Putin’s decision and Medvedev’s growing independence and liberalism was evident in April 2011 during his trip to China. Medvedev said in an interview on Chinese state television: “I do not rule out the possibility of running for a second term in the presidential elections. The decision will be taken very shortly.” For the first time, Medvedev seemed to suggest that the decision on whether or not he would run would be solely his own and not taken within the tandem. He added: “I and Vladmir Putin have the single task so that in ten to twenty years Russia will be one of the strongest and most powerful states in the world…We, perhaps, see the methods and ways of attaining this flowering differently, but this is democracy and this is competition” (“Medvedev ne isklyuchaet togo, chto budet ballotirovatsya na novyi srok,” Nezavismaya gazeta, 12 July 2011, “V perevode s kitaiskogo,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 14 April 2011).
In Putin’s view, Medvedev’s growing independence and reformism, the rise of the protest sentiment beginning in December 2009, and United Russia’s declining poll numbers risked the most negative outcome that both Putin and Medvedev seek to avoid – regime transformation by revolutionary rather than evolutionary or, as political scientists discuss it, ‘transitional’ regime change. Medvedev’s liberal response to the protest movement was not what Putin would have preferred. Medvedev proposed and eventually signed into law a series of reforms before Putin’s inauguration: They included: 1) elimination of the requirement that political parties gather signatures to run in parliamentary election at the federal, regional, city, and district level (the signature-vetting process had been used to keep some opposition parties and candidates from running in elections); 2) a sharp reduction in the number of signatures needed to register presidential candidates for parties (from 1 million to 100,000) and independents (from 2 million to 300,000); and 3) a sharp reduction in the number of members that a party needs to be registered and a streamlining of the signature and registration process (from 45,000 to 500). In addition a reform of the method of appointing senators was adopted tying it to the new, ‘filtered’ election of governors.
It cannot be excluded that some of these reforms were proposed and passed against Putin’s will, which would explain any breakup of the tandem with Putin’s return: i.e., Putin’s removal of Medvedev as Prime Minister. Putin likely stood behind the watering down of one of the key December reforms; the gubernatorial election reform proposed by Medvedev did not include any qualifications of ‘filters’ of the kind forced into the draft legislation when passed in spring. Indeed, the tandem again openly disagreed, with Medvedev saying there would be no filters and Putin saying it would be good to consider them.
The differences in policy between the two presidents are a reflection of their philosophical differences, and the gap appears to be greater as time goes by. What is more, differences within the tandem over Medvedev’s reforms were beginning to split the elite; a development that ultimately could lead to the Putin regime’s fall.
In foreign policy, there is some evidence that Medvedev’s decision not to block the Western-sponsored UN resolution on a Libyan ‘no fly’ zone was taken independently. That decision mobilized and sparked indignation within the traditionalist camp as Putin was making his final decision on who should run for the presidency (See the interview with Dimitri Simes, “Why Russia Won't Yield on Syria,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 17, 2012, www.cfr.org). Medvedev’s decision, the ensuing public Medvedev-Putin public disagreement, the subsequent Western bombing of Libyan forces, and Qadaffi’s bloody demise could only pique Putin’s and the traditionalists’ anti-Western angst and their doubts about Medvedev. More importantly, the bombing and Qadaffi’s extrajudicial demise meant the resounding defeat in Moscow for Medvedev’s more Western-oriented view that emphasized more cooperation with the U.S. and the West.
Moreover, the Libyan debacle was but a single episode within the larger challenge of the Arab ‘Spring’ that Putin must now have thought Medvedev was unfit to handle. The Arab Spring – part of what is really a revolutionary situation across much of the Islamic world in which a global Islamist revolutionary movement and a global jihadi revolutionary alliance are growing – is properly of grave concern to Putin. For all his occasional boorishness and heavy-handedness, Putin has a better handle on the nature of the ‘Arab Spring’ than do present US policymakers, who are still blinded by the chimera of democratic revolution in the region.
Putin’s concerns go far beyond the latest episode in Syria and Russia’s impending loss of its last ally in the Middle East, however. Any realistic understanding of the situation should induce grave fears for global stability; all the more so for those closest to the Islamic arch stretching across southern Eurasia, Russia’s ‘underbelly.’ Beyond the general prospect of instability and region-wide war, Russia finds itself in the minority, likely losing Shia side of the burgeoning Sunni-Shiite Islamic civil war, being waged at the moment largely by proxy. At the same time, the West is taking the Sunni side.
The ominous nature of the global security situation emanating from Russia’s south is even more perilous when one considers the imminent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is likely to lead to civil war and the Taliban’s return to power, which in turn will strengthen of Central Asian global jihadi revolutionary groups war temporarily based in Waziristan, Pakistan and Afghanistan that already are able to carry out attacks in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Thus, the U.S. withdrawal will bring more jihadi terrorism to Central Asia, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic Jihad Union head home regenerated and rearmed. Add to this the possibility of a perhaps imminent Iranian war, and the world to Russia’s south looks like a powder keg certain to explode during the present six-year presidential term.
But it gets worse looking out the Kremlin’s windows. Russia’s largely Sunni (as well as Sufi) Muslim North Caucasus is in the throes of its own burgeoning jihadist revolutionary movement. Since the official founding in October 2007, the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin have carried out nearly 2,000 attacks or violent acts, including 45 suicide bombings, which have inflicted nearly 10,000 casualties. A Chechen battalion of some 40 fighters is fighting in Syria, as is perhaps a Tatar ‘jamaat’battalion from Russia’s Tatarstan Republic. Tatarstan experienced its first major jihadi attacks in July orchestrated by a jamaat that declared its loyalty to the CE’s amir Dokku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov. Both Umarov and his CE were put on the U.S. Department’s list of international terrorists in summer 2010 and summer 2011, respectively. Thus, Russia has much more to worry about regarding the Arab ‘spring’ than do his Western counterparts––and must surely have anguished over the idea of Medvedev holding the reins of power as the world enters into this dangerous era.
To this boiling cauldron in and around Russia’s south add the possibility of another global economic recession and financial crisis and the already present instability on Europe’s, China’s, and Russia’s streets. It becomes quite clear that there was good reason for Putin’s calculus to halt handing the ball over to Medvedev and postpone retirement.
It seems increasingly clear that differences within the tandem are and were greater than previously thought. So the question arises whether the tandem could break apart. There are two ways this could happen. Traditionalist angst and growing tensions within the tandem could push Putin to fire the government and appoint a new prime minister, for example first deputy head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov or Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. However, Putin handed over the reins of the United Russia party to Medvedev last year, and the longer Putin puts off firing Medvedev, the more time Medvedev has to take control over the party that has a majority in the State Duma and could block any Putin move to replace him. Therefore, such a move would split the regime and empower the opposition.
Second, Putin could intensify his creeping crackdown on the opposition and rollback of some of Medvedev’s reforms, forcing Medvedev to try and salvage whatever democratic credentials he retains by that time and jump the ship of state by resigning and joining moderate opposition forces. Up until now the strength of Medvedev’s loyalty to Putin seems to preclude this scenario, though it should be kept in mind that other close Putin associates, such as former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, have abandoned the regime of late.
Each time Putin rolls back aspects of Medvedev’s perestroika 2.0, Medvedev’s stock falls further. So far Medvedev has made no serious attempt to separate himself from Putin’s rollback of some of his reforms. Should the rollback continue for example, with a repeal of Medvedev’s most significant reforms (those of the political and electoral systems passed last spring), Medvedev will lose all credibility as a liberal because of his silence. In short, there is a built-in tectonic element within the tandem that threatens to destroy it, leading to a major regime split. As the challenges of the next presidential increase pressure on Putin to act decisively, they may spark a fatal split of both the tandem and the regime, bringing another Russian regime change.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program.