As expected, the Russian presidential elections went
smoothly, with Dmitri Medvedev reaping a comfortable 70 percent of the vote,
and a robust turnout of 70 percent, virtually tied with President Vladimir
Putin�s 71 percent in 2004. The Communists garnered a surprising 18 percent,
despite what both they and foreign observers claimed were clear violations of
procedure in some districts. However, even the Parliamentary Assembly of the
Council of Europe concluded the vote reflected the will of the people.
�Together we can continue the course set by President Putin.
Together we�ll go further. Together we�ll win,� Medvedev, dressed in jeans and
a black leather jacket, told a crowd who braved driving sleet to cheer him
after the tally. Medvedev did not campaign and refused to take part in
televised debates. However, no one questions his right to move into Russia�s
powerful presidential seat, despite his tender 42 years and the fact that he
has never been elected before.
Frustrated Western commentators denounced the elections.
Italy�s La Stampa referred to �a democracy that many consider mutilated,
even destroyed.� With the remarkable turnaround of Russia�s fortunes under
Putin, they have reverted to the arcane science of Kremlinology, dismissing
Russian public life; instead, sifting through bits of media fluff -- who�s
sitting next to whom at meetings, etc. -- to try to gaze into Russia�s
political future. While this can be amusing, it�s not necessary in order to see
the broad outlines of what is happening.
In his eight years at the helm, Putin reversed Russia�s
decline and is deservedly admired and respected. At the same time, the
robber-baron plutocracy he inherited did not magically reform itself, but seems
to have settled in to a quasi-state-run group of competing power centres --
�clans� is a word casually thrown around in the Western media, with Putin
supposedly keeping the lid on their desires to expand their influence.
Remarkably, to the extent that this scenario indeed reflects the reality, Putin
himself has not staked out a personal economic empire, unlike his ne�er-do-well
predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Though the latter is universally reviled now, much as is his
own predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin is at least given credit for
plucking the incorruptible ex-KGB agent Putin from obscurity and letting him
clean up some of the mess he created, though Putin was forced to agree to leave
Yeltsin and his cronies alone, which he did.
Now the tables have turned somewhat. Putin could easily
retire as did Yeltsin and bask in his deserved fame. He could easily have
agreed to calls to amend the constitution to allow him to continue indefinitely
as president. Instead, he chose to pass the torch to a young liberal lawyer
with no background in the security forces, and to take on the much less
prestigious, much harder task of prime minister. It�s the PM who takes the heat
when the economy screws up. He can be dismissed along with the cabinet by the
But what is so enigmatic about this? Russia now has some law
and order, some stability, some credibility as a bulwark against Western
imperial pressures. Time to move on. All indications are that Putin will
continue to be an important political force, quite possibly taking on the
delicate but important task of taming the siloviki (referring to the
security forces) who are trying to consolidate their economic power with the
new, equally clean president backing him up.
The Western view is that Medvedev is merely a puppet that
Putin will manipulate and discard if he doesn�t prove up to the task, a weak
and hopefully harmless compromise candidate who will ensure that the privileges
of Russia�s political clans are preserved and kept under control. That this is
in the Russian tradition of the dictator and his circle choosing someone who
will not rock the boat.
In fact, none of his predecessors were shrinking violets,
even the cautious Brezhnev, who pushed aside his patrons and effectively
destroyed the system he inherited by trying not to rock the boat too much. But
Medvedev is no Brezhnev. It is very unlikely that he�s a Gorbachev either. The
nightmare that perestroika resulted in is all too fresh in Russians�
minds. Nor is there the same desperate need to radically change the system as
there was with Stalin or Khrushchev.
The political landscape eight years on has already changed
radically from the days of Yeltsin. Not only are the Westernisers cowed, but
the Communists are now the loyal, if slightly put-out, opposition -- a complete
reversal of the legacy that Yeltsin bequeathed Putin. Yes, Russia has
effectively reverted to a one-party state, though unlike the Communist days,
there is lots of room for criticism. Like its Soviet predecessor, Russia has a
vital role to play in the world as the brave voice that will speak out against
US imperialism. These realities are Putin�s most enduring legacy. It is
unlikely that Medvedev will discard them. Furthermore, he has staked out his intentions
to engage the private sector, as opposed to his rival Deputy Prime Minister
Sergei Ivanov�s desire to establish new state-run corporations.
As for Putin, it seems that he is getting ready to roll up
his sleeves and tackle the troubling stranglehold that economic elites still
have on Russian life. He is certainly the inspiration for Medvedev�s
announcement that government officials should not hold positions on boards of
companies. �Truly independent directors should replace them,� Medvedev has made
clear. Which means he will himself resign as chairman of Gazprom and surely
insist that Kremlin Personnel Manager Viktor Ivanov resign as chairman of
Almaz-Anbtei, Minister of Education Andrei Fursenko as chairman of
Ronsnanotekh, and Kremlin aide Sergei Chemezov as chairman of Rosoboronexport,
all prot�g�s of Putin. The recent arrest of the notorious mafia kingpin Semyon
Mogilevich is also a hopeful sign of things to come. Putin already created an
investigative commission to operate in parallel with the prosecutor-general�s
office to try to balance these groups, chaired by Aleksandr Bastrykin.
Last October in Kommersant, head of Federal Drug Control Service Viktor Cherkesov called for
a ceasefire among warring siloviki,
warning that state corporatism, credited with saving Russia, would collapse if
the infighting continued. Analyst Alexander Golts explains, �They stood
together as long as they were robbing others of their assets. But after
dividing the spoils, they realised that they can only expand their wealth by
robbing one another.�
That all this is public knowledge shows that no one is
deemed untouchable. Can Medvedev/Putin call a truce among the warring Kremlin
factions, and strengthen judicial independence? Or is the intent to pursue the
�sovereign democracy� which now seems to be the norm, establishing an
acceptable pax putina within the economic elite, a kind of neo-tsarism?
This is clearly uncharted territory. Everyone agrees that
the future of the political (and, by implication, bureaucratic) diarchy will
keep Russians, indeed the world, guessing which of the two has more political
clout. It is quite possible that Medvedev will continue to take directions from
Putin. Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institution for Globalisation Studies
and Social Movements in Moscow, worries, �Will the bureaucratic machine be
efficient now that neither the law nor the internal administrative regulations
say how it must function?� Kagarlitsky argues that the transformation of the
president into the PM could paralyse the presidential administration and the
cabinet of ministers, that this move is a blunder, a dangerous game -- to leave
and stay at the same time.
Is this a replay of the legendary Russian tragedy of Boris
Godunov, regent to Tsarevich Feodor, or a heroic and brilliant strategy to
continue Russia�s return to health? Perhaps it will be clearer by this summer,
when Russia sends a delegation to the Group of Eight meeting in Japan. Will
Putin attend, or Medvedev, or both?
Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at www.geocities.com/walberg2002.