In an environment where traffic tickets often are “arranged” with the police officer who charged the infraction, and the former mayor of Moscow’s wife “cleared” municipal building contracts, the Russian public has become inured to all forms of corruption. It’s an area of clearly different perceptions by the country’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and its prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
It is not that one leader is for corruption and the other is against it. Rather it’s a matter of how influential corruption is viewed as an obstacle to daily governance. Putin, for example, knows full well that the interior ministry, with its own police power, is now and has been for a very long time the center of a culture of governmental privilege and self-administered justice. It is just that he also views the character of the ministry as essential for the maintenance of a basic level of security. This concept is left over from the Soviet days.
Medvedev, though a lawyer, does not come from the same security background as his older and more politically calloused former (and perhaps still) boss. Medvedev is said to carry with him a consciousness more appropriate to the ordinary Russian who has no relationship other than adversarial with the police. The problem in political terms was defined clearly by Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Center in Moscow earlier this year: “The relationship between ordinary Russians and the police is one of the most serious sources of conflict between [leadership] and people at large.”
Putin has attempted to place himself as far away from this problem as possible. With the exposure last spring of massive graft and general corruption in the most feared of Russia’s internal police force, OMON, (Special Purpose Police Unit), Putin became unavailable to officials seeking him in his office in Russia’s White House. This was one year after the now famous “Confidential” cable under the signature of U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle noted that Putin had “lost his edge” in economic matters, and that the Russian PM was “working from home,” leaving most of the government business to his deputies. This March ’09 cable, made public by Wikileaks, contained no context as to what had caused this unusual behavior other than to state that “well connected” sources reported Putin to be “distracted and disinterested.”
Since the OMON exposure — and without any Wikileaks aid — President Medvedev has fired nearly two dozen of the top interior ministry administrators and fifteen prison officials. A general purge of police ranks followed. While this action has gained considerable press and public approval for Medvedev, the problem continues of criminality within Russia’s law enforcement community.
Another aspect of corruption is apparent in the lack of police action to counter assaults against the press by “unknown assailants.” An international committee tracking such matters (Committee to Protect Journalists) reports eight Russian journalists have been killed and forty assaulted so far this year. Molodaya Gvardia, a youth branch of the political party United Russia that is chaired by Putin, has been charged with inciting the brutal beating of Oleg Kashin, an investigative reporter for the major newspaper, Kommersant. And this simply was about his writing of a conflict between environmental groups and the building of a highway through a suburban Moscow forest.
President Medvedev’s aides have made it clear that their boss is outraged at this increasing violence against journalists and environmental activists. Medvedev even posted a personal message of condemnation of such acts on Twitter. Meanwhile, Putin’s camp — and the man, himself — have avoided assuming any leadership in this regard, even though such civil disorder normally falls well within the purview of the office of the prime minister.
This creates a picture of Putin doing everything he can to avoid political conflict with any aspect of the security forces that are deemed his base. At the same time, he is promoted by his public relations advisors as the senior leader involved in good works and “presidential” matters rather than the hardworking, operational chief in his actual role as PM. Putin’s choice just this week of personally commenting on the Kremlin-announced $646 billion modernization of the Russian strategic military fits well into his chosen self-characterization paralleling his newly developing role as “man of the people.” The political image-making is unmistakable when Russia’s next presidential election is only about seventeen months away.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is now only 58 years old. He is far too young to continue in Russia’s political life as even a titular #2. The alternative of moving into the world of private business as the chairman of a major industry just doesn’t seem to be his métier, though the opportunity certainly would be there. Contrary to the March ’09 cable from the American embassy, Putin is not withdrawing from an active role in official affairs, but he is staying out of the fray and preserving his siloviki support structure of key figures in security, intelligence, the military and, importantly, the oligarchs. It is hoped that the current State Department is doing a better job of looking beyond the information it has received from its previously characterized “well connected” sources.