Rus­sia’s ‘tan­dem’ no longer in sync

Medvedev, out of fa­vor with his one­time po­lit­i­cal part­ner, faces a bar­rage of hu­mil­i­at­ing at­tacks unim­peded by Putin

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - WILL ENGLUND IN MOSCOW en­glundw@wash­

Acam­paign of in­sin­u­a­tion and in­sult has tar­geted Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev, and in a coun­try where all power flows from the top down­ward, his boss, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, has done noth­ing all win­ter to stop it.

Medvedev’s fail­ings get an air­ing in the press, and nasty, anony­mous video doc­u­men­taries ac­cuse him of all sorts of treach­ery. Slights and hu­mil­i­a­tions are vis­ited on him by the Krem­lin, seat of the pres­i­den­tial ap­pa­ra­tus. Gov­er­nors go around him. Bu­reau­crats ig­nore him. Putin, in pub­lic, takes lit­tle care to hide his dis­dain.

Medvedev re­sponds by re­peat­edly try­ing to demon­strate his loy­alty to Putin, which draws ridicule from politi­cians and pun­dits alike. As a con­se­quence, the cab­i­net of min­is­ters Medvedev chairs is barely able to func­tion.

The Krem­lin could halt the abuse any time it wanted to, said Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Cen­ter. But Putin, she said, in­tends to send a clear mes­sage to the rest of his cir­cle that Medvedev is ir­re­vo­ca­bly out of fa­vor. And it is a symp­tom of one of Putin’s strong­est char­ac­ter­is­tics, she added: “He en­joys it when other peo­ple are be­ing hurt.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, a once-trusted Krem­lin in­sider who was fired in 2011, has a darker view: that Putin has con­vinced him­self that Medvedev be­trayed him, has con­flated Medvedev with the po­lit­i­cal pro­test­ers who in fact op­pose both men, and is lash­ing out in all di­rec­tions in a fight against de­mons that only he can see.

This, Pavlovsky said in a re­cent in­ter­view, ex­plains the anti-Amer­i­can­ism, the tri­als of po­lit­i­cal foes and the stri­dent de­nun­ci­a­tions of the lib­eral elite. Worse, he said, the mood of dis­trust is in­fect­ing the whole po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, ush­er­ing in what he called a Rus­sian McCarthy­ism. A case in point is the Duma, the lower house of par­lia­ment, where mem­bers try to outdo each other in find­ing new men­aces to ban while ig­nor­ing the chal­lenges Rus­sia ac­tu­ally faces, he said.

It wasn’t al­ways this way. From 2008 to 2012, Medvedev was pres­i­dent and Putin prime min­is­ter. Putin had al­ready served two terms as pres­i­dent, and step­ping into the prime min­is­ter’s job was a way to re­main in power with­out vi­o­lat­ing the con­sti­tu­tion. The idea was that they would be a “tan­dem” in run­ning the coun­try, with Putin in con­trol but Medvedev faith­fully car­ry­ing out the du­ties of the pres­i­dency.

It worked for a while, said Pavlovsky, a prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tect of the ar­range­ment. His hope, he said, was that it would con­sti­tute a tran­si­tion to­ward an ac­tual elec­toral democ­racy. But even as Medvedev showed him­self to be more ten­ta­tive and cau­tious than he had to be, he be­gan talk­ing in 2011 as though he might seek re­elec­tion. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween the two lead­ers were bad, and Putin, Pavlovsky said, sud­denly sensed be­trayal.

That is when he de­cided to take the pres­i­dency back. Medvedev ac­qui­esced but in­sisted on be­com­ing prime min­is­ter, and Putin, per­haps out of mis­placed fear that he would be­come a leader of the op­po­si­tion, agreed.

But Putin was so wounded by what he be­lieved to be Medvedev’s mo­tives, Pavlovsky said, that he is now sus­pi­cious of ev­ery­body. This is not only bad pol­i­tics, he said, but it has left all those close to Putin un­sure of where they stand or what will hap­pen.

“The tan­dem turned out to be de­struc­tive for both th­ese politi­cians — they dam­aged each other,” Pavlovsky said. “One was trau­ma­tized, and the other stopped ex­ist­ing as a po­lit­i­cal per­son­al­ity.”

Putin could fire Medvedev any time he wants, although he isn’t nor­mally one to let peo­ple go.

“He can de­spise Medvedev, he can walk him around like a lap dog, he can con­de­scend to him — but he can­not just brush him aside,” Shevtsova said. “That would un­der­mine the tight­ness of the gang.”

More likely, she said, is that the pres­i­dent is pre­par­ing Medvedev to be the scape­goat when some cri­sis comes along that re­quires one.

Putin may feel that he has to crush Medvedev be­fore he can dis­card him, said Kir­ill Ro­gov, an an­a­lyst at the Gaidar In­sti­tute, or else the prime min­is­ter might rise again to chal­lenge him.

Fiona Hill and Clif­ford Gaddy, both at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, have just pub­lished a book that an­a­lyzes Putin’s pres­i­dency, and they pointed out at a re­cent fo­rum that Medvedev, who is 13 years younger than Putin, would have been a law stu­dent dur­ing the years of the great pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tions be­fore the Soviet col­lapse and prob­a­bly took part in some. Putin, at that time, was a KGB of­fi­cer in iso­lated Dres­den, East Ger­many.

So in one sense Putin was right if he be­lieved that the crowds of pro­test­ers this past year in Moscow were “Medvedev’s peo­ple.” They are his age, largely from his sort of back­ground, and of the same mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity.

Now Putin’s cher­ished “ver­ti­cal of power” has been rerouted to by­pass Medvedev.

Putin’s 60 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing would be high in any true democ­racy, Ro­gov said, but it is not suf­fi­cient in Rus­sia’s “elec­toral au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.” Putin’s sys­tem de­pends on there be­ing no alternative, or no prom­ise of one, and a mythol­ogy of over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus.

Alarmed by the op­po­si­tion, Ro­gov said, Putin has moved force­fully to “sep­a­rate” the lib­eral, ur­ban pro­test­ers from the rest of Rus­sian so­ci­ety — em­brac­ing tra­di­tion­al­ism, nationalism and the church. “This is much more se­ri­ous than I thought even a month ago,” he said.

The new mood helps ex­plain the most re­cent anony­mous video at­tack­ing Medvedev. It luridly ac­cuses him of trea­sonously be­tray­ing Rus­sia by go­ing along with NATO ac­tion in Libya.

Hav­ing em­barked on this course, Putin can­not turn back, Ro­gov said. His prob­lem is that more and more peo­ple who have gone along with him up to now will be re­pelled by the new fun­da­men­tal­ism. Putin used to be the de­fender of the sta­tus quo, but now he is the agent of change — in a di­rec­tion that plenty of in­flu­en­tial Rus­sians will not care for.

“Putin is be­com­ing a nui­sance to the elite,” Shevtsova said. “At some point, he will have to use force and co­er­cion. That is the logic of the reign. But he’s not ready. He’s not Stalin.”


Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin, left, and Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev to­gether in Moscow in 2011, be­fore they switched ti­tles.

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