RUSSIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Will Putin challenge Medvedev in 2012?
, December 25, 2010
Year 2012 will see two globally important national election campaigns: one in the United States; the other in the Russian Federation.
It is highly likely that the former will see the Democratic ticket headed by President Barack Obama, with or without his ageing and gaffe-prone Vice-President Joe Biden. The Republican Party still has many more hoops to jump through before its leadership team is finalised.
But what of Russia's contest in 2012? Here there's uncertainty all round.
Will current President Dimitri Medvedev stand again? And will Vladimir Putin, a former president, but currently prime minister, who is seen as something of a grey eminence, throw his hat into the ring?
Will the two men's United Russia Party (Yedinaya Rossiya)
run a joint ticket featuring what's called "the powerful tandem", with Putin for president and Medvedev the vice-presidential candidate? Or will "the powerful tandem" split, resulting in a Putin-Medvedev clash?
Evidence is emerging that powerful backers of both men are lining up behind one or the other.
This has been cautiously hinted at by Moscow-born Leon Aron, who is now director of Russian Studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
Aron's expertise includes analysing the political, economic and ideological factors that shape Russia's foreign policy, US-Russian relations and the doctrines of "Putinism". His two major publications are a biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life
, and Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006
Aron argues that the visions for Russia that Putin and Medvedev have presented to date differ so markedly that they're quite contradictory.
Aron says: "The policy disjoint is too wide for Putin to wait until the end of Medvedev's second term in 2018 to reverse what he clearly sees as, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, dangerous deviations from Putinism. ...
"Emerging from Putin's recent public statements is a vision of Russia that is virtually antithetical to the ideas and aspirations Medvedev has articulated. ... The chasm between Putin's and Medvedev's designs for Russia's future might hold the answer to the 'Putin 2012' question." (AEI Outlook
, Fall 2010).
Aron's researches reveal markedly different pronouncements by the two men about the nation's economy.
Medvedev has described Russia's economy as "chronically backward", "primitive", dependent on raw materials and ignoring "the needs of the people".
That has an uncanny likeness to what the late Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn said during his famous 1975 address to America's trade union movement, the AFL-CIO. About the sclerotic Brezhnev economy, whose decrepitude was to prompt Mikhail Gorbachev to call for perestroika
(restructuring) and glasnost
(openness), he asked: "What kind of country is it [Russia]; what kind of great power, which has tremendous military potential that conquers outer space but has nothing to sell?"
He went on: "All heavy equipment, all complex and delicate technology, is purchased abroad. Then it must be an agricultural country? Not at all; it also has to buy grain.
"What then can we sell? What kind of economy is it? Can we [Russians] sell anything which has been created by socialism?
"No! Only that which God put in the Russian ground at the very beginning, that's what we squander and that's what we sell. When all this comes to an end, there won't be anything left to sell."
Little wonder, says Aron, that Russia's GDP plunged 7.9 percent in 2009 - the deepest recorded slump of all the major national economies during the recent global financial crisis.
What says Putin? According to Putin, the country has been "progressing steadily" and has "no big problems", says Aron.
The crisis, argued Putin a while back, had "no connection" to the Russian economy and came from outside the country. It "held back" Russia's development, but only "a bit". Putin remained convinced that the Russian economy was "on the right track".
Contradicting Putin's rosy view and confirming Medvedev's harsher view is independent evidence of the dire institutional deficiencies of the Russian economy.
The Transparency International Corruption Index places Russia 154th, below Nepal, Cameroon, Ecuador and Sierra Leone.
Out of 133 countries surveyed in 2009, Russia was rated 121st in the protection of property rights (behind not only Indonesia, which was 81st, but also Kazakhstan, at 103rd), and 116th in the independence of its courts.
Aron says: "Graft, blackmail, and shakedowns of entrepreneurs have become a pillar of Putinism and one of the main obstacles to economic progress. Moscow businessmen report that kickbacks (otkaty
) paid to city authorities have increased from 10 per cent of profits in 1990 to 60-70 per cent today."
Increasingly, racketeering is described by close observers as the primary "commercial enterprise" of "out-of-control executive authorities".
Any businessman not prepared to pay an otkaty
may well find himself enduring "pre-trial detention" which can last years. That has prompted Aron to contend that Medvedev's "most significant policy initiative thus far has been a law mandating bail for those accused for so-called 'economic crimes'".
Medvedev has again spoken out against such embedded practices, whereas Putin is quoted claiming the struggle against institutionalised graft as being merely a "question" that "requires painstaking research".
Medvedev has argued that Russians are virtually "defenceless" against the "arbitrariness" of authorities, with the common man and woman enduring "non-freedom" (nesvoboda
) and inevitably feeling "disdain" for the law.
Writes Aron: "While Putin's political agenda appears fairly certain, Medvedev's faces an uphill battle and stark options.
"The difficulty for Medvedev is compounded by the fact that, while the differences in the two leaders' approaches to the current problems are indeed quite pronounced, Medvedev's modernisation 'thaw' thus far has produced only sporadic changes in the facts on the ground, which continue to be dominated and shaped by Putinism."
According to Aron, what Medvedev should do in the run-up to next year's Duma (parliamentary) elections is to ensure unconstrained public debate, first and foremost on national television, and unimpeded registration of opposition parties and movements.
Thereafter he should attempt to merge these liberalising initiatives that he has administered "from above" with the increasing calls "from below" from Russia's growing number of budding pro-democracy opposition and new middle-class protesters who seek greater freedoms across-the-board and who are demanding that Putin departs the political stage.
That, of course, is a big call, not least because Moscow's powerful political and super-rich business elites long to see political power returned to a fully reconstituted all-powerful Putin machine.
Year 2011 is set to show which side will predominate, after which the likely presidential ticket will become obvious even before it has been announced.
Aron's emphasis on the importance of the pre-election period, 2011, is backed by other Russia analysts.
Paul Saunders and Dimitri Simes of the Nixon Center recently wrote: "Russia's 2012 election will likely prove decisive in the Putin-Medvedev relationship, though the election itself will probably be much less significant than the period immediately before it, when the real decision - which of them runs for president and wins - will be made.
"Most believe the choice is still Putin's, but Medvedev's supporters hope that Putin won't fight back if they mount a real challenge. The closer the election comes, the greater the pressure on Russia's elite to choose sides." (New York Times
, November 9, 2010).Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.
Leon Aron, "Putin's agenda and Medvedev's dilemma", AEI Outlook
(Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy), Fall 2010.
Paul J. Saunders and Dimitri K. Simes, "Who controls Russia", New York Times
, November 9, 2010.