Sun, Jan 17, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The Kremlin’s long-standing politics of the two-step

By Dmitri Trenin

Westerners often see Russian politics in terms of a high-level struggle between liberals and conservatives: conservative Russian politician Yegor Ligachev and glasnost promoter Alexander Yakovlev under former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev; reformers and nationalists under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin; siloviki (politicians with ties to the military or security services) and economic liberals under Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

They also view Russia in terms of a tradition whereby every new czar partly repudiates the legacy of his predecessor, creating a political thaw at the beginning of a new reign. Former first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization is Exhibit A.

Both methods were used to describe the relations between Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev relationship — to understand its nature and dynamic, and what it portends for Russia. But observers remain puzzled.

To dismiss Medvedev as a mere Putin puppet, a constitutional bridge between Putin’s second and third presidential terms, would be both unfair and wrong. Russia’s third president has a broader role and a distinct function. ­Conversely, portraying Putin as “a man from the past” and Medvedev as “a hope for the future” exaggerates the differences between them and omits the more important factors that unite them. A better analytical model is needed.

For all the apparent freshness of Medvedev’s recent pronouncements, including his now famous article “Go Russia!” — which sounded a clarion call for modernization and liberalism — he is borrowing massively from Putin’s vocabulary of 2000. This suggests that the issue of modernization, which lay dormant throughout the fat years of high oil prices, is back on the Kremlin agenda.

In 2008, Medvedev was installed in the Kremlin as part of “Putin’s plan,” the substantive part of which was known as “Strategy 2020,” a blueprint for continued economic growth and diversification. The intervening crisis only made the Kremlin modify and sharpen its plan. And Medvedev is a key agent in its execution.

Putin chose Medvedev carefully and not only for his unquestionable loyalty, vitally important as that is. Putin, among other things, is a combative nationalist and he wants Russia to succeed in a world of competing powers. He is certainly conservative, but he is also a self-described modernizer.

As such, he might be compared with Pyotr Stolypin, another conservative prime minister from the late imperial days who famously asked for 20 years of peace and quiet — mostly from liberals and revolutionaries — to transform Russia. Stolypin never got the chance — a revolutionary assassinated him in 1911 — and neither did Russia, which stumbled into World War I, leading directly to the collapse of the monarchy and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Putin wants to finish the job and much works in his favor. He is the czar. He has both money — the government’s budget and the oligarchs’ fortunes — and the coercive power of the state firmly in his hand. He is the arbiter at the top and the trouble-shooter in social conflicts below. His most precious resource is his personal popularity, with a flavor of consent to his authoritarian regime.

None of that, however, is good enough. The 75 percent of Russians who make up the Putin majority are essentially passive and seek only the preservation of a paternalistic state. Putin can sit on their support, but cannot ride forward with it. The best and brightest are not there.

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