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Medvedev-Putin: Rift? What rift?

© RIA Novosti / Go to the photo bankDmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin
Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin - Sputnik International
A rare public display of disharmony broke out between Russia’s ruling tandem last week after Putin provocatively criticized the Western-led military intervention in Libya. Within hours, the Internet was littered with speculation about the apparent rift between the two leaders ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Could the “spat” have been pre-planned? Or is Medvedev attempting to outbid Putin to try to stay in power?

Interview with Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute for Political Expertise answers these questions and explains why we should avoid giving two-dimensional assessments of the ruling pair.

Samir Shakhbaz: Good afternoon, Yevgeny. Let’s get right to it: is there a rift between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin?

Yevgeny Minchenko: I think the word rift is a bit too strong. Medvedev and Putin indeed have different approaches to foreign policy. Putin’s approach is the classical Realpolitik that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which states and their national interests are paramount. As Tsar Alexander III said, Russia only has two allies – its army and its navy. Therefore, strategic alliances between countries with divergent national interests are all but impossible. Only situational alliances born of specific circumstances are possible, and any alliance must yield some benefit for the nation. On the other hand, Dmitry Medvedev’s approach is rooted in the belief that Russia’s political elite has the chance to become part of the global Euro-Atlantic political elite. To accomplish this, Russia needs to seek common ground on questions of values and avoid disputes with the West. The idea is to join the mainstream, and once there try to find additional financial, intellectual and technological resources that will help Medvedev pursue Russia’s economic modernization, which is an important goal for him personally. 

S. Sh.: And with respect to Libya?

Ye. M.: Medvedev’s policy is simple – why lock horns with the West over Libya? Why oppose the West, especially when there are so many questions about Gaddafi’s regime? Besides, we have much more ambitious goals as part of the “reset.” Putin’s position is that the West is clearly imposing double standards. Why can’t Muammar Gaddafi fire on demonstrators, while snipers are shooting protesters in Bahrain? The same human rights activists who demand the ouster of the bloodthirsty tyrant Gaddafi remain silent about Bahrain and the fact that Saudi troops have been brought in to crush the protest movement.

S. Sh.: So, this is an ideal situation for Russia – both the president and the prime minister are right.

Ye. M.: Well, this issue is not a priority for the public opinion in Russia. But if there are, in fact, two differing approaches, then the Russian elite has to make its choice. Obviously, this is not a game. The president and the prime minister candidly voiced their positions.

S. Sh.: Do you mean that this public disagreement was not preplanned? Putin and Medvedev weren’t acting out the roles they had been assigned?

Ye. M.:
No, I don’t think that’s what happened. It was Dmitry Medvedev’s personal decision for Russia to abstain from voting on UN Security Council resolution 1973, and he did not consult Putin about it. This issue falls within the president’s authority. Vladimir Putin weighed in on the matter as prime minister and leader of Russia’s largest party, which he has the right to do, as does any Russian citizen. Later, Dmitry Medvedev commented on the “unacceptable” language used by “some politicians” – an obvious reference to Putin. However, when you look at Medvedev’s full statement, it’s clear that there is no controversy between him and Putin. They simply have two different opinions.

Now, if we’re talking about 2012 – and most discussions have centered on what this supposed controversy means for the 2012 election – I think it’s important to clear this up: the idea that these two politicians will sit down at a table and decide which of them will run in the election is a bit far-fetched. True, Russia does not have the institution of primaries as the United States does. But there is something like a primary, and the voters are the top level of Russia’s elite – between 10,000 and 20,000 people who decide Russia’s trajectory. 

For example, in 2008 the choice was between Sergei Ivanov, who is more in the mold of Putin, and the supposedly liberal Dmitry Medvedev. Voters chose a softer line toward the West. I believe the chances that Medvedev will run in the 2012 election as the United Russia nominee have gone down. In late 2010, I would have said there was something like a 90% chance that Medvedev would be the nominee. But now – given the events in North Africa and the Middle East – the odds have changed.

The main argument in favor of Medvedev was that a politician like him would find it easier to establish good relations with the West. But the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have made a powerful counterargument.

Just look at what happened to the wonderfully pro-Western Hosni Mubarak. 
The same Western politicians who embraced Col. Gaddafi not long ago and even removed the “terrorist” label from his name are now calling for the bloody tyrant to be crucified. But they had embraced Gaddafi – who, as luck would have it, happened to have lots of oil – and they called him a progressive leader. Now the question is: if the West is so quick to turn on its favored leaders, is there really any reason to seek this status? 

S. Sh.: So, to get back to the topic at hand, the president and the prime minister have been saying that they are a team, that they are working together, and that the issue of the 2012 election will be resolved. But things don’t seem so simple. This is not the first sign of a rift between Medvedev and Putin. They have also publicly disagreed on the attack at Domodedovo airport and on the Khodorkovsky trial.

Ye. M.: I think this is the first fundamental disagreement between Putin and Medvedev. Before, the differences were a question of style. I don’t see any fundamental issue at stake in the disagreement over whether a government official should call a person guilty before they are convicted. As for Putin’s claim that the case of the Domodedovo airport bombing was solved, this again was a matter of style, even though Medvedev was technically right. At the same time, the investigators’ understanding of what happened at the airport has not changed since then. This is why I say that there is no fundamental difference in the views of the president and prime minister.

The important thing now is that the upper echelons of the Russian elite choose one of the two directions for Russia’s foreign policy.

S. Sh.: So, the opinion of the majority of Russians doesn’t count?

Ye. M.: That’s the way it is all over the world, in my opinion. Nominees are chosen by a society’s elite, whether they be from financial, administrative, defense, corporate, government or business circles. This is more or less what happens everywhere. The elite makes the initial selection and then voters make the final choice. But in reality it is the elite that makes the choice.

Naturally, a person can win the support of the counter-elite or a particular segment of the elite. Russia experienced this when part of the elite decided they wanted a new nominee, and Boris Yeltsin was chosen. He carried water for the ruling elite, but he also came out of a certain group within this elite that was dissatisfied with the state of affairs. 

Today we don’t see a rift like this. I believe that we see differences on minor points and on how they relate to risk. It would be an overstatement to say that Dmitry Medvedev is a pro-Western politician. Last year Medvedev said that Russia’s political system was almost perfect, that the system had been streamlined and there was no need to dismantle it. Recently he said that what happened in Egypt was also planned for Russia. This indicates that Medvedev is no stranger to conspiracy theories. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t really someone out to get you. 

The issue is not that Medvedev does not see any risk of foreign interference in Russia’s internal affairs or attempts by outside forces to destabilize the country, while Putin does see this as a risk. I’m convinced they both understand that such a risk exists. They differ in how much weight they give to it.  

S. Sh.: Will the choice in 2012 be between Putin and Medvedev, or will a third candidate enter the race?

Ye. M.: A third candidate could appear but the chances are negligible – between 1% and 2%. The choice will be between Medvedev and Putin, and I also believe that Medvedev stands better a chance than Putin does. Moreover, the choice in 2012 will be between two different trajectories rather than between two politicians.

While political experts are putting everything Medvedev and Putin say under the microscope to find every little differences in their positions, major changes are taking place in the country. Even though Putin’s rhetoric regarding the West is somewhat guarded, Russian and Western companies are working together. The proposed Rosneft-BP stock swap is the deal of the century. The French energy giant Total intends to buy a stake in Novatek, Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer. The German heavyweight BASF is joining the South Stream pipeline project. Regulations for foreign investors joining energy projects in Russia are expected to be liberalized; changes can be made to Gazprom’s share capital and so on. So, Russia’s economic landscape is undergoing profound transformations, including its regulations on foreign investors. At the same time, the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is developing rapidly.

So, the 2012 issue should not be reduced to a choice between two politicians. The elite will be choosing a trajectory for Russia’s domestic, foreign and economy policy. There is no truth in the claims that a vote for Medvedev is a vote for a liberal pro-Western direction, while a vote for Putin is a vote for hardliners who hate the West. Instead, we see that companies that are close to Putin are very active in the West and are pursuing ever deeper cooperation with Western businesses. Just look how liberal Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has become. Until recently he was a Russian bogyman to the West. 

The situation is not two-dimensional. It is neither black nor white, contrary to the claims of some who call themselves political analysts.

S. Sh.: So, to sum up, there is no 2012 issue, and whatever happens, the right choice will be made.


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