As the election cycle draws near in Russia, the political differences between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev appear to be edging toward an open collision course. Does it, really? Although analysts say that a public rift between the two political accomplices would be a good thing for Russia, but few believe it is genuine. To many ordinary Russian citizens, who have yet to squeeze out the juice from the country’s economic boom, it is nothing but a stage play, and whichever runs and wins in 2012, it won’t make much difference in their lives.
But those who refuse to buy in to the political gimmick concede that it is something that cannot be ignored. That is why in the world of blogosphere, this issue dominates front and center. Each of them continues to insist on the wish to run for president in polls next year. Each of them also refuses to publically assert such desire. But lately, it is becoming more and more obvious that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wholeheartedly wishes to reclaim the presidency.
Vladimir Putin himself triggered the speculation now sweeping the internet. “Neither me nor Dmitry have ruled out that each of us could be a candidate in the race,” he said last week in an effort to tamp down discussion about the looming Kremlin choice. “We will proceed from the real situation closer to the elections.”
Putin made these remarks while responding to remarks made by Medvedev at a conference of the BRICS nations in China. “I do not rule out that I will run for a new term as president…A decision will be made in the fairly near future, because there is less than a year remaining. It is high time for changes.”
Are we truly heading toward a faceoff between the two men?
The last three years, the world has been witnessing a political tandem in Russia, where Putin, who had already served two terms in office playing the role as a shadowy head of state and his anointed successor, Medvedev, the actual president struggling to assert his legal role. Both routinely insisted that relations between them were fine, and that in due course they would decide “between themselves” which would run as the establishment candidate for president. This is a situation where the opposition, including the very powerful Communist Party headed by Gennady Zyuganov, have found themselves marginalized, even when they are allowed to participate in the electoral masquerade.
No one doubts Putin’s ambitions and his desire to create a strong party system based on the old Soviet structure, but on a profound nationalism aimed at strengthening the Russian bear. It was he—Putin—who after all engineered the Russian resurgence after the humiliating period following the disintegration of the USSR. In 2008, Putin made the front cover of Time Magazine for bringing back the Russian prestige.
Western style, bourgeois democracy has struggled for years to take roots in Russia. The brief multiparty interlude that followed the abdication of the last czar in 1917 was soon swept away by the Bolshevik revolution that lasted more than 70 years. Attempts to build a democratic system in the 1990s foundered amid economic chaos and social breakdown. On top of that, western intransigence left no room for Russian citizens to digest the bitter waves lurching to drawn them.
When Putin retreated from the presidency in 2008 and agreed to head the Primacy, he also accepted the leadership of United Russia, the state-backed political behemoth that controls virtually all legislatures in the country – from the State Duma to small municipal councils – and whose membership is so heavily stacked with officials that wags have dubbed it a “trade union for bureaucrats.”
Putin has the edge
Immediately after Dmitry Medvedev took office, the United Russia-dominated Duma passed a bill amending Russia’s 1993 Constitution to extend presidential terms from 4 to 6 years, a change that many speculated was aimed at allowing Putin to return in 2012.
Pavel Salin, an analyst with the independent Center of Political Assessments in Moscow, asserted that “in the existing system, the choice of candidate for president is not a public matter.” He went on to say that “the person who controls resources, assets and finances is the most powerful. And that is Putin. He is also supported by the vast, gray bureaucratic machine whose main interest is preserving the status quo. All the strings are in Putin’s hands, and I cannot see him running against Medvedev because it would upset the tandem, and neither of them is ready for this.”
That may be where we are heading—toward an unforeseen scenario, where Putin seems poised to come out on top. To many, Putin equals stability. His main claim to popularity is that he imposed stability in Russia after the turbulent decade of the 1990s. One must be certain that will be the theme to be honed all over Mother Russia this summer—from the country’s rich hinterland to the rugged mountains of Transcaucasia and even along the frozen towns of northeastern Siberia.
Putin himself set the tone last month in a speech to the country’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in which he enumerated the country’s economic successes under his stewardship as prime minister.
“The nation needs decades of stable and calm development without any sharp movements and ill-conceived experiments,” Putin said in the 4-hour address. “If the state and the nation are weak, a lack of immunity to outside shocks inevitably become a threat for national sovereignty…. In the modern world, those who are weak will get unambiguous advice from foreign visitors which way to go and what policy course to pursue.”
Medvedev has urged a course of “modernization,” which would include greater openness to the West, investment in high tech industries and modest political reform. “It’s not a message that plays well in Russia’s vast, conservative hinterland, or among the wealthy oligarchs who make their fortunes extracting and exporting raw materials. But it could gain traction among millions of youthful, educated urbanites who, polls suggest, increasingly yearn for the rule of law and political freedoms that Western middle classes take for granted,” explained in an editorial of The Christian Science Monitor.
Medvedev may be winning over the petite bourgeoisie, hungry for a western style democracy, but he as well as the nouvelle elite that he claims to represent seems to be lost in the quest to achieve the elusive bourgeois democracy and their Russian patriotism—two entities, for all practical and historical purposes that seem to be quite at odds with each other. And for this reason, Putin seems to have the edge.