My second blog has to be about Putin’s return as Russian President, while the issue is still fresh in people’s minds. Though to an extent it is already old news; so I will try to highlight some points that haven’t really been addressed in the commentary so far.
First, Putin’s destination may be clear, but we shouldn’t take the other moves in the game for granted. I can’t see Medvedev as a long-term Prime Minister. The Moscow rumour mill reports that Putin allowed Medvedev to choose his post as a ‘reward’ for vacating the presidency without a fuss. Which makes sense – Putin’s PM can’t have thought in depth about his suitability for the job. Under the 1993 Yeltsin constitution, the Prime Minister is either a fall-guy or an enforcer. Medvedev certainly isn’t the latter – you can’t run the Russian government on Twitter. Medvedev would be better employed serving his twin niches of legal reform, perhaps as Head of the Constitutional Court, and “modernisation”, perhaps as an ambassador for FDI in some yet-to-be-invented position. Otherwise, how will Russia deal with the understandably disappointed Western leaders who invested so much time and political capital in engaging with Medvedev? They are unlikely to do the same with Medvedev as PM.
Moreover, given how much of Russian politics is smoke and mirrors, we may not have seen the last of Kudrin. Anders Åslund argues that Putin will spend, spend, spend through his new presidency as an ardent populist, but there is a general awareness across the elite that the state is bloated and money will be scarce after 2012. Kudrin, or at least Kudrinism, will have a role to play. So will the “Medvedev party”, some of whose members may migrate to the Putin camp.
And one small technical point about the actual ruling party. What will happen to United Russia under Medvedev or a neglectful Putin? The new Duma will be more sclerotic than ever.
Second, it pays to remember just why Putin is “indispensable”. Only Putin has the power to maintain the stability of the post-Yukos system in Russian business and politics by balancing the warring clans. Putin is 'lord of the rings', arbitrating between these circles of interest. Medvedev was never powerful enough, and also came from Putin’s own circle, rather than empowering any other faction and upsetting the balance.
Russian transitions are always about maintaining this balance, but it is unclear how will it operate after 2012. There is a danger of Putin’s own circle – men like Timchenko and Vekselberg – becoming too powerful. There is another obvious danger of business interests becoming even more prominent in Russian foreign policy, such as the role of Vneshekonombank (VEB), where Putin chairs the Supervisory Board, in states like Ukraine, where VEB financed the sale of the Industrial Union of the Donbass to Evraz in 2010 and controls Ukraine’s main grain trader Khlib Investbud.
A third key point is the lack of a narrative to justify Putin’s return, at least not yet. He cannot run as a national saviour, arguing that only he can sort out the mess – as Medvedev was so obviously his man. Nor will Putin want to disown or campaign against what he sees as the key achievements of his first two terms: the key tropes of “order”, a stronger state and pacification of the North Caucasus, even if many of these achievements are illusory and under threat if Putin comes back in much more difficult economic circumstances and with real anarchy looming in Russia’s North Caucasian “internal aboard”. Putin cannot run against himself.
Putin’s manifesto in Izvestiia proposing a “Eurasian Union” is the clearest indication of the direction his campaign might take. It makes strategic sense to build on rather than revisit the 2000s; but the article did little to upgrade the exiting Customs Union offer to foot-draggers like Ukraine or even Belarus. Another important truth of Putin’s return is that he will be freer to push his own favourite causes, whether feasible or not. And this one isn’t. If Putin continues to push, others will continue to resist. The real drama of Putin 2.0 will therefore not be the introduction of a “Eurasian Union”, but the fall-out from its inevitable failure.
In Russia, however, there is always the danger of a “narrative” becoming a “dramaturgiia” – of a political technology version of an election narrative being used to sell Putin’s return to power as a PR project. Putin will not actually be campaigning in the traditional sense, so we should get ready for a potentially rough ride, with plenty of carefully-staged conflict ahead.
This week in the East is a weekly commentary by Andrew Wilson for New Eastern Europe.