Last week I wrote about Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent moves against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s staunchest allies. The most significant among these was Medvedev’s proposal that senior government officials should shed their lucrative posts as heads of Russian state companies. With presidential elections scheduled for a year from now, many see Medvedev’s gambit as an early indication that he will seek a second term. Not only could this be a first step in dismantling the authoritarian system Putin created — sometimes referred to as the “power vertical” — but it would also give Medvedev much more room to maneuver in a second term. The key thing to watch, I suggested, was how Putin would respond.
Well, the answer is in. Medvedev scored his first major scalp from Putin’s crew, and more are expected. Igor Sechin, a deputy prime minister, has announced that he will step down as chairman of oil giant Rosneft. A KGB alumnus, Sechin is considered one of Putin’s most conservative and powerful allies and a key rival to Medvedev. After Sechin’s ouster, two more officials — Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina and presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich — announced their departure from the board of Sberbank, Russia’a largest bank. As many as 14 more senior officials could follow.
In an interview with China’s CCTV earlier this week, Medvedev said, “It is time for changes. Those who do not change remain in the past. What was good 10 years ago isn’t good today.” He certainly sounds like a man intent on making bigger changes than just reshuffling a few personnel.
His comment reminded me of something I heard in Moscow last year. While there, I visited the Institute for Contemporary Development, a liberal think tank that is considered close to Medvedev. (Medvedev is the organization’s chairman and is said to have backed its formation when he became president.) The institute has published several reports that have effectively called for a rollback of Putin’s centralized government — ideas which have found their way into Medvedev’s speeches. I spoke to the deputy director, Evgeny Gontmakher, who has helped write these papers. “We believe someone inside will begin this process. We have some historical examples. For example, Khruschev,” Gontmakher told me. “Khruschev was very close to Stalin. But after Stalin’s death, he began reforms. Very good reforms in comparison to Stalin’s time. Maybe if Medvedev wants to be president next term, if he really wants to realize some ideas, maybe he will begin this process.”
If that logic is correct, then Medvedev just declared his candidacy for 2012. Of course, unlike Stalin, Putin is not dead.
I have a hard time believing that Sechin and company just rolled over out of respect to Medvedev. More likely, they waited for the signal from Putin that this was one presidential directive they would have to accept. (Medvedev has famously complained about how so many of his orders go ignored.) If that’s the case, this will hardly be the beginning of de-Putinization. Rather, expect Medvedev to come back, with Putin not far behind.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ongoing battle between Russian environmentalists and the Kremlin over the future of Khimki Forest. Last week, the group that has been working to protect these environmentally protected lands confronted builders and construction crews that were cutting trees in one portion of the woods. Yaroslav Nikitenko, one of the volunteers working to stop Khimki's destruction, was detained by the police on trumped-up charges after he asked to see the work permit for the construction. (They did not produce one.)
On Wednesday, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, issued a report criticizing the violence directed against journalists in Russia. Two of the most brutal attacks — against Mikhail Beketov and Oleg Kashin — are believed to have been ordered after they reported on the struggle over Khimki. The environmentalists trying to protect this forest have posted a petition at Change.org that can be found at news.change.org/stories/russian-activists-launch-international-campaign-to-save-moscows-khimki-forest.