Perhaps the most intriguing comment to arise from the current wave of Moscow punditry is the statement of one of the major newspaper editors regarding Vladimir V. Putin: “There is a view that he is just tired of the whole game.” That is the first time super athlete, forever-young Vlad has been characterized as tired of anything. Obviously this editor wasn’t part of the prime minister’s public relations team.
Vladimir Putin seeks to project a particular image — one of physical and intellectual vigor, like he can deal effectively with any situation. His younger friend, and associate for nearly twenty years, Dmitri Medvedev, is not at all worried over his own physical image, but is far more concerned with Russia’s and the world’s perception of him having an astute understanding of all contemporary matters both academic and practical. In this sense of ego both men are similar.
At this stage of the Russian political process — less than a year from the presidential election — speculation centers on the appearance that neither Medvedev nor Putin want to be the first to conduct an open campaign for the head-of-state position. An open conflict would produce a typical political game of winner and loser. If that would occur, one of those contestants would be diminished by the outcome. This might satisfy some of the second-tier aspirants to power on both sides of the Medvedev/Putin fence, but not the principals.
Herein is the personal puzzle in the Russian leadership race: The two men actually like one another and have a considerable respect for each other’s abilities. Their differences derive from their earlier status and experience. Vladimir Putin had the primacy of “the institution of the State” drilled into him from the beginning as the bedrock of Russian success. The KGB was as “bedrock” as could be achieved in the USSR. Putin accepted central control in the communist state as something one could count on; it provided a perception of reliability. The influence of that early learning experience remains.
While never denying the importance of a dependable and consistent polity and economy, Dmitri Medvedev, who came of age as capitalism was returning to Russia for the first time in seventy years, has made serious efforts to reduce the powers of the state companies that he sees as stultifying progress. Putin, and his close advisers like Alexei Kudrin, finance minister, well recognize that private companies are harder to manipulate from a government standpoint than any state industrial or commercial institution.
Putin & Co. do not accept the concept that private companies will properly respond to government interests. By definition and Russian experience, of course they are correct. At the same time, however, Medvedev argues that Russia’s slow growth rate requires a boost from cuts in social spending while increasing and broadening private investment.
There was a time, not too long ago, that the infrastructure of Russia’s central government depended on a strong cadre of dependable friends and allies of Vladimir Putin from the security services, intelligence and the military — known to all as the siloviki. They are still there; some even serve in the Kremlin with President Medvedev. But the numbers are considerably reduced overall. Some had grown too old; others just didn’t pan out; many just grew weary of bureaucratic life. In any case they have been reduced to only about half in number.
There is a tendency to judge this alteration of Russia’s political control structure as a victory for Medvedev’s perceived liberalism. Certainly Barack Obama is convinced Dimi is just the type of modern, well-educated (lawyer), thoughtful Russian leader with whom he, especially, can work. Unfortunately for the American president, dealing with the Moscow mafia is far more complicated and nuanced than his limited experience can recognize.
There indeed are liberals in the Moscow government as there still are siloviki. Whether they work in balance or in competition usually is a matter of the issue at hand. Certainly one can expect that a return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency will reinforce the security cadre’s role. But a return to the prime ministry by Medvedev does not necessarily mean that his economic reform concepts will be abandoned. Foreign investment still will be a clear necessity, and little Dmitri is the one most capable in that area.
Dmitri Medvedev has stated publicly that he and Putin will decide between them who will run for what office in 2012. Putin has given every sign he agrees with his former aide on that point. What is now under discussion is not merely the job title but the job itself.
Dmitri Medvedev is openly committed to reducing state interference in the economy. He considers this old path to lead to “stagnation” [his term]. Vladimir Putin’s inclination toward centralization is based on his not-unwarranted fear of the exploitive results of privatization he witnessed during the Yeltsin period. But this is now a different era and the two men well understand each other’s fears and urgings. It’s not quite as complicated as it appears, but it certainly is arcane. Very Russian!