While the world remains transfixed by the popular rebellions against Arab autocrats, there is a quieter drama emerging in a distant authoritarian capital. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is, in an odd twist, beginning to act like a president.
In recent weeks, Medvedev has begun to take stances that potentially put him at serious odds with his mentor and predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Although Putin formally holds the junior position in this Russian tandem, he is still considered the more politically potent of the two. Many Russians have long assumed that Medvedev was nothing more than a place holder, a dutiful protege handpicked to serve as president so that Putin could eventually return for a third term without violating the Russian constitution. (According to Russia’s constitution, presidents can serve multiple terms, but not three terms consecutively.) Although the Soviet Union is long gone, Kremlinology lives on, and Moscow’s political elites are abuzz over whether Medvedev and Putin are clashing or whether Medvedev’s gambit is all part of some grand design.
It began over Libya. After the United Nations Security Council gave the green light to enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, Putin said that the campaign “resembles medieval calls for crusades.” Medvedev quickly made his own statement, saying, “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. . . . Everyone should remember that.” It was Medvedev’s decision to support the U.N. resolution, and that was that. The Russian president has been orienting Russian foreign policy in a less anti-Western direction than Putin, and he doesn’t appear to appreciate the backbiting.
This episode may have been nothing more than a small spat or Putin’s not being able to resist going off script. The more significant move came a few days later when Medvedev suggested that senior government officials should be removed from the boards of major state companies. This proposal is significant for two reasons. First, the seamless network between the government and major state industries is a cornerstone of the authoritarian architecture that Putin built. It is not uncommon to find senior Kremlin officials simultaneously holding management positions in the country’s most powerful corporations. (For example, I recently wrote about the battle to save Khimki Forest. Igor Levitin, the Russian minister of transportation, who is pushing the construction that would build a roadway through Khimki to Russia’s Sheremetevo International airport, is also chairman of the board of Aeroflot.)
Second, when you look at who these senior Kremlin officials are, it reads like a who’s who of Putin’s closest friends and allies. Putin has known most of them since his days in the KGB or as a city official in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.
What are we to make of it? With the next Russian presidential election 12 months away, many will say that Medvedev is making his play for a second term. (His spokesman has already said he’d like a second shot at the job.) Rather than wait for Putin to decide if he wants to return to the office, he is moving now to sideline Putin’s most powerful political allies. Others will argue this is nonsense. Putin is the leader of United Russia, the ruling party, and if he wants a third term in office, none of Medvedev’s machinations will change that one bit. Perhaps Medvedev knows his time is almost up, and he is just making waves so that he doesn’t leave office the way he entered, looking like Putin’s poodle.
Either way, the key thing to watch now is how Putin responds. Medvedev has made it clear that his proposal to have these officials step down from their lucrative posts is not a trial balloon. One of his aides has come forward with a list of names of people (read: Putin cronies) who would be affected by the policy. If Putin bows to it, some will say it must have been his idea or that he and Medvedev actually intend to keep the tandem in place for another term. More interesting, though, is if he doesn’t. Then the gloves may come off, and we will finally find out who Medvedev is — poodle or president.