At Large

Moscow Casting Call

Whether on stage or behind the scenes, Dmitry Medvedev is no longer serving as Vladimir Putin's understudy.

By 10.2.09

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In the spring of 2012 there will be a national election in Russia. Long before that a decision will be made as to who will be the next president and prime minister. The higher ranking of these jobs surely is going to be held by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Does it really matter who holds the other?

That's the question that is making the rounds in Moscow these days. There is clear acceptance that Putin intends to take back the presidency. It is less clear that Dmitry Medvedev will be willing to return to the job of prime minister he held before 2008. The siloviki, the cadre of security and military personalities who guard and guide Vladimir Putin's ascendancy over Russian political and governmental life, have mixed feelings about a Medvedev who has none of their experience on his résumé.

Dmitry Medvedev was well accepted as Putin's trusted administrative staff chief and later to a lesser degree as a faithful prime minister. However, little Dimi's performance as Putin's handpicked "understudy president" already has met with some annoyance in the ranks of the Putin faithful.

Perhaps it is the ease with which Medvedev has slipped into the role of head of state that bothers them. It hasn't helped that President Medvedev apparently has enjoyed emphasizing his self-perception as a socially concerned leader -- a concept that grates against the instincts of the more authoritarian and institutionally rigid siloviki.

Democracy in Russia is a management decision in which the predominant votes come from the elite of the security services, business leaders, and top members of the well-structured, if less than efficient, bureaucracy. The popular vote essentially ratifies what these power centers have agreed upon. There is, of course, considerable "noises off," but the work center stage is accomplished by the established actors.

The staffs of Putin and Medvedev have developed serious competition in both foreign and domestic matters. Press coverage is also a point of contention. Medvedev's early exclusive interview with the liberal newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, was especially galling to the Putin staffers whose boss is regularly battered by articles in that publication.

This is not to say that outside factors do not influence political matters. When President Obama announced the American about-face on anti-missile deployment in Eastern Europe, it was President Medvedev who rushed forward to accept credit for his personal relations with the new Washington administration as key to the altered U.S. strategy. Prime Minister Putin was left in the uncomfortable position of playing a supporting role to the leading man he had created.

There are other signs that the tandem rule is wearing at the edges. Dmitry Medvedev openly took a shot at his old boss and teacher during a meeting with economic experts in the middle of September. He pointedly referred to his own background in business and his considerable acquaintance with the ethos and realities of that world as an excellent match with Putin's security skills. This distancing of himself from his partner's KGB upbringing was construed by some Kremlin watchers as little Dimi slyly setting forth his individuality and independence.

Medvedev emphasizes his good relations with Barack Obama. The Russian president noted he spent eight hours in talks with his American counterpart, while Putin had never spent more than one and a half hours with George Bush. In Washington this was taken as a slap at Bush, but in Moscow it was clearly upstaging Putin. These are not inconsequential matters in the highly theatrical world of Russian politics.

So far Putin is still accepted as the true star of the Russian scene. If Putin decides he wants to run for President again in 2012, under the newly arranged constitutional change he will be eligible to have two more terms of six years each. This would bring the Putin era to 2024, at which time he will be 71 years old. Medvedev, on the other hand, would be a still youthful 59.

In spite of his increasing popularity at the polls, Dmitry Medvedev might decide to step off the Putin merry-go-round for a term or two, acquire some wealth in international business, and return for an unrestricted try again at the presidency of the Russian Federation when Putin is no longer eligible. There are plenty of people in the Moscow entourage who would encourage that scenario.

It all depends on how hard Dmitry Medvedev has been bitten by the leading man bug. Upstaging the established star of the Kremlin Art Theater can bring one very swiftly to the point of "never working in this town again." 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.