The inability to subordinate Russia to all western political demands triggered a search to find leadership cracks in Russia. In the past few months media outlets and think-tanks worldwide have indulged in the “investigative” task.
The inability to subordinate Russia to all western political demands triggered a search to find leadership cracks in Russia. In the past few months media outlets and think-tanks worldwide have indulged in the “investigative” task of finding out if the alliance between President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is crumbling. One of the latest contributors to this investigative project of potential cracks in the Russian leadership has been the publication, Russian Profile that organized a panel of academics to try and analyze the widely marketed idea of leadership cracks. The analytical panel consisted of various views representing several political thoughts and agendas and mainly focused on discussing the views of Medvedev and Putin on Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), negotiations with the US regarding the missile shield in Europe and the overall US-Russia relations in regards to strategic weapons. Several attempts were made to read into various statements by Putin and Medvedev which appeared to contradict each other.
However, in order to understand if the leadership crack really exists between Putin and Medvedev, it is necessary to focus not on their specific public statements which may be considered as diplomatic rhetoric, but on the strategic framework of political power in Russia today. This framework is set around the notion of internal stability and the return of Russia to the world arena as a respected leading player. Both notions are regarded by the larger Russian public as an achievement of Putin and not Medvedev. President Medvedev himself recognizes this and knows that if he was to move away from the strategy set out by Putin and suffers even a minor loss, his political credibility will be attacked by all members of the Russian political establishment. There is broad political consensus in Russia among the political elite based in Moscow that Putin brought relative stability and world respect to Russia and only Putin is the key guarantor of this situation. This notion is also derived from the Russian political culture which is very persona based. Post-USSR Russia has not matured to the level of creating a political caste with several centers of power which are bound together by common ideas and principles.
When Putin came to power the four key steps he took to consolidate power was, first, creating an image of being in control through the war in Chechnya, second, eliminating the oligarch class that was formed between 1990–1998, third, cracking down on the power of regional governors, and lastly, bringing into strategic positions security and military personnel.
The elimination of oligarchs under the leadership of the Russian-Israeli billionaire Boris Berezovsky created support for Putin among ordinary Russians. The Russian masses viewed the oligarch class with hostility because they took advantage of the calamities which befell Russia after the collapse of the USSR in order to enrich themselves.
Bringing into government the former KGB and military officials also was greeted with enthusiasm by the Russian people. The majority of Russians viewed and to a certain degree still view the security forces as “real patriots”. This notion is built into the Russian society from the days of the USSR which constantly marketed the security forces as uncompromising defenders of the state. In the post-Soviet era not many military officials accumulated large amounts of wealth as did many civilian and economic technocrats. All political and economic fiascos of Russia were blamed on the ex-communist bureaucrats and the new class of oligarchs who let the “true patriots” down. Being himself from KGB background, Putin skillfully used this notion of a “patriotic” security class in order to gather credibility and push through his agenda.
In 2004, Putin eliminated the election of regional governors and instead appointed them directly, as a power of the president. This was his fundamental step in securing power. Temporarily this created support for Putin because it played on the fear that Russia could disintegrate. However, this created a large class of unsatisfied regional bureaucrats and businessmen.
Until now the central government in Moscow is able to maintain a balance of interests between itself and the regional power groups. However, this is a very delicate balance which can be altered at any moment. If some regional leaders in the territories of central Russia decide to make regional issues the key rallying point in challenging the central authority, Russia will witness the emergence of a real power struggle.
The issue is that the Russia of urban centers is very different from rural Russia. Most regions within Russia are rural. Rural Russia is not as westernized as the urban centers and also suffers from great underdevelopment in comparison with a few big cities that are developed and industrialized. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the rural population suffered greatly due to the collapse of collective agricultural farms. In post-Soviet Russia, revival of the agricultural industry did not receive much attention because the new business and political elites attempted to copy the West. They immediately went for developing businesses which were associated with the Western notion of the “market economy” such as stocks, banks, insurances and oil. This unsuccessful economic policy was derived mainly from the identity crisis of the Russian political class, which created wide disparity in wealth. Therefore, if political groups in the regions decide to challenge the central government in Moscow they can pose a formidable challenge to the existing system.
When Putin reconstituted the current system of government that rules Russia today, its key characteristic came to be the centralization of power. Apart from the North Caucasus this scheme of centralizing power has worked relatively well and the Moscow-based political and business elites consider it as the achievement of Putin alone. Even Moscow-based opposition parties have been co-opted into the system and regard the centralization of power as an achievement.
Therefore, all contradictions that appear between Med-vedev and Putin are simply a public discussion within the Russian political establishment on tactical policies of Putin’s strategy; it is nothing more. The only time a serious crack between Medvedev and Putin could appear is when Putin’s implemented centralization of political and economic power vis-à-vis the Russian regions suffers a setback. The political establishment at the federal level is relatively monolithic; therefore there is little chance that opposition to Putin will emerge in Moscow. It is the regional institutions and regional power centers that lost their autonomy due to Putin’s centralization policies that need to be observed.