Putin’s Long-Term Plan: The Anatomy of Perfect Machiavellism
The longevity of political leaders is a factor of great importance to the political process. The fact that the wise Franz Josef I ruled for 68 years was a critical factor in the history of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, and was at least partially responsible for its stability after the revolution in 1848. Among other monarchs with extensive reigns were the Japanese Emperor Hirohito with 62 years, the English Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria with 45 and 64 years respectively, and the Russian Queen Katherine the Great who reigned for a mere 34 years. Only Louis XIV, with his reign of 72 years, has surpassed Franz Josef in European history. In the recent past, we may note that the half century reign of Fidel Castro was a significant event which had great repercussions on its country’s international relations. If Stalin and Mao Zedong’s control had been less than three decades, the political trajectories of Russia and China would have taken a different course, thus affecting international relations on an array of levels. Even the modest length of 18 years under Brezhnev’s control was an important factor in the deep stagnation of society. It is conceivable that Vladimir Putin will be initiated into the elite group of leaders that have attained several decades of power in their particular countries. If this supposition turns out to be valid, it will have a great impact on both Russian and world history.
In this essay, the author was very reluctantly forced to encroach into the psychology of politicians; extremely unpleasant work, but unavoidable if one ventures to guess the future and plans of political players. However, the author, with his skeptical (or Skinnerian) attitudes toward the study of the motivations of politicians, and toward the possibility of “read[ing] their mind[s],” has sought objective behavioral data as an external referent to any of his suppositions regarding the plans of Mr. Putin. The author also pays some attention in this piece to the survey of predictions, which were made by politicians and experts on the Kremlin’s plans.
Political Planning in a non-Democratic Society: Russian Cases
Almost all Soviet economic plans and programs, whether with a projected range of five years or twenty, have failed to achieve their targets. However, there have been long-term political plans in Russia that have fared much better fate than economic programs. Political plans, like economic ones, are not supposed to be completed instantly or in a short period of time, but rather over the course of a longer period of time. Only politicians who have great self-control can hatch up such plans. Khrushchev, for instance, was incompatible with this kind of political planning as he tried to accomplish each of his political objectives almost immediately.
Unfortunately for both researchers and the public, political plans are ultimately kept secret. As a rule, those who compose them do not put the text of the plan with a detailed chronology of expected events on paper (or e-mail). Only the Protocols of the Elders of Zion provided historians with a detailed text which carefully delineated the utterly fallacious plan of the Jews’ goal to conquer the world. Even the notorious Wannsee Conference, in which Nazi leaders discussed the “Final Solution,” did not leave an official blueprint detailing the extermination of Jews. Even the lower ranking Nazi politicians who participated in the conference were suggested by the chairman of the conference and SS high official Reinhard Heinrich to destroy any official documentation concerning their discussion, which in turn created problems during the Nuremberg trial. Only Adolf Eichmann, a fanatic of German bureaucracy, had left evidence of the conference: the document with a calculation of the number of Jews who should be exterminated in each country.
Usually, researchers try to prove the existence of secret plans through indirect evidence, which help to separate the real plans from the falsified ones. Russian nationalists and Communists alike ascribed to the CIA the long-term plan to destroy the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation. In January 2010, prominent politicians Gavriil Popov and Yurii Luzhkov, attributed to the American government, without even a modicum of evidence, a plan to destroy the Russian industrial-military complex with the help of Egor Gaidar, whom, they said, the Americans had planted in the Kremlin as an acting premier minister. In fact, in 1992 Gaidar was an unknown figure, not only in the United States but also in Russia. When I proposed his name as a potential speaker for a conference at Bard College — only a few months before his appointment by Yeltsin, which forced Gaidar to decline my invitation — not one person among the American economists or officials had heard of him.
Even from 1918-1919 when the notion of having a worldwide revolution was taken seriously by the Kremlin, it was still debatable whether or not the Bolsheviks had an elaborate plan for spreading revolutionary fire across the globe. Indeed, many Western scholars believed in the existence of such an extreme plan up to the end of Perestroika. Lenin and Trotsky in particular had faith in the imminent spread of Communism throughout the world, but they were still sober enough, despite the euphoria after the German revolution in November 1918, to refrain from the composition of any plans for a victory march of the proletarian revolution across the globe. After 1920, the idea of a worldwide revolution was used only for ideological purposes, but also as a rationalization for Moscow to continue its spy and surveillance operations.
In some rare cases, the political actors retrospectively attributed themselves with secret political plans. Alexander Yakovlev attributed the formulation of the plan for Perestroika to himself in his last book, Russia XX century.Documents (2008). Indeed, the memo written by Yakovlev to Gorbachev in December 1985 (just after the beginning of Perestroika) proposed the political and economic liberalization of society in the spirit of the Prague Spring, but with the preservation of socialist ideology, old foreign policy, and the principles of the command economy. However, the course of Perestroika was evidently determined by its own logic and by factors beyond Gorbachev’s control. Neither Yakovlev nor Gorbachev planned for the destruction of socialism and the USSR.
At the same time, without a doubt there have been several secret political plans throughout Soviet history. We can point to Brezhnev’s plan for society’s re-Stalinization after Khrushchev’s ousting in 1964, which was not carried out in one single action but by series of deeds over a period of time. The ultimate goal was for the gradual dismantling of Khrushchev’s liberal reforms — of his famous “thaw.” The realization of the plan was temporarily halted in the mid-1960s because of the resistance of the intelligentsia, but the Prague Spring in 1968 gave the plan a new impetus. By the middle of the 1970s, many of the goals had been achieved (for example, the destruction of my science — empirical sociology — was carried out during the early 1970s). A special segment of the plan was Andropov’s program for the steady elimination of dissidents and Samizdat, and was almost absolutely completed, which was in contrast to all the other five-year proposals which were not. By the early 1980s, on the eve of Perestroika, political resistance to the regime did not exist.
Stalin’s plan to build up his supremacy in Soviet Russia is one political scheme in Soviet history that is particularly useful for our narrative. It would not be wrong to suppose that in the aftermath of Lenin’s death (and probably earlier) Stalin had a long-term plan ready to put into action for how to create a new party apparatus and use it for the elimination of all those who might oppose his dictatorship. Stalin started by ousting Trotsky from the leadership, using Zinoviev and Kamenev as his allies. He then destroyed them both politically with his collusion with Bukharin. Finally, he finished Bukharin too, and physically eliminated all potential opponents, real and imaginary, using terror in the process.
The Third Term for a Russian President: a Multitude of Speculations (2006-2007)
Putin’s plan to stay in power for at least the next decade could compete with Stalin’s brilliant plot during the early 1920s to become the absolute ruler of the country. During 2006-2007, when the country was approaching a new presidential election, Putin’s plans for a continued leadership began to brew in the Kremlin. At the time, not only Russians, but speculators worldwide began to ask the question: Will Putin remain President for a third term or not? Several schools of thought emerged during this time.
Hypothesis 1: Putin will leave the presidency and political power
The members of the first school of thought (referred to as “legalistic”), includes people living in both Moscow and abroad that harbored different attitudes toward Putin. This group believed in Putin’s declaration to stay away from a third term. They interpreted Putin’s refusal to be re-elected as President as his decision to hand over the supreme power in Russia to a new politician. The pragmatic members of this school supposed that Putin would choose a successor himself, who would then be formally endorsed through the election.
The members of the legalistic school of thought substantiated their prediction with various explanations:
1. Putin, being a true democrat, highly respected the constitution.
2. Putin did not want to be an outcast in international public opinion, which would happen if he joined the club of such despicable post-Soviet rulers as Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who currently has 20 years in power; Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has 15 years; and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has reigned for 18 years. As a member of this company, Putin would lose the opportunity to visit the West as a legal and respected head of state.
3. Putin did not want to be held responsible for the imminent, disastrous course Russia was sure to follow.
4. A theory that the elite is irritated with Putin’s behavior and wants to replace him with somebody who will better serve it was also in circulation. None of the analysts—like Stanislav Belkovsky, who, with great aplomb predicted Putin’s withdrawal from politics for this and similar reasons— ever recanted their failure as prophets.
5. Among other arguments advanced to explain Putin’s virtual decision to abandon political power, the most ridiculous was the affirmation that “Putin will leave the Kremlin because he is tired of power.” The supporters of this ludicrous notion took Putin’s nonsense about the hardship of his presidential work, which he compared with the arduous stints of “the slave in the galleys” in his February 2008 press conference, at face value.
Hypothesis Two: Putin will stay the third term; he likes power and is afraid to abandon it
A significant number of politicians and analysts, mostly liberal, predicted that Putin would stay for a third term. The analysts from this group were split into two categories: Putin opponents and Putin loyalists. The critics were confident that the prolongation of Putin’s era would be disastrous for Russia, while the loyalists believed that it was absolutely necessary for Russia’s stability.
1. Putin’s critics insisted that he not only loves power but is also afraid to abandon it because of the possibility of prosecution for various actions done while he was in the Kremlin. Those who believed in Putin’s third term reasoned that Russia, either as a tsarist country or a Communist one, did not know of any cases in which the rulers of a country voluntary abandoned their power, and that Putin would be no exception. The critics advanced a number of ideas about how Putin would move to the third term:
a. In their opinion, a change to the constitution, which only allows two terms for a president, would be extremely simple for Putin due to his popularity in the country and his total disrespect for the law.
b. The critics were also sure that the more astute and shrewd members of the administration would invent several other tricks that would permit Putin to stay in power for the next four years.
c. The third ploy that liberals discussed with revulsion was the possibility that Putin’s early resignation would be combined with an arranged failure of the subsequent presidential election (either through low participation by the voters, or the impossibility of any candidate to get the majority after two rounds). In this case, it would be perfectly legal for Putin to enter the new election, where he would then be elected by an overwhelming majority.
Most of the general public was supportive of those who wanted Putin to continue his presidency after 2008. According to the Fund of Public Opinion in September 2005, about half of the population was against the two term limit. A similar number of supporters were reported in the Levada summer 2007 survey of those who did not see any candidate who could rival Putin.
Hypothesis Three: Putin will stay in power, but not as president
Putin’s frequent declarations of his decision to not participate in this election, which he continued to make a few months before the presidential election, forced some of his critics, as well as loyalists, to assume that Putin would look for other options for staying in power. The liberal predictions were numerous. Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, organized in 2007 a pseudo- competition among pundits on its program Power, lead by Evgenii Kisilev, where the goal was to see who could correctly guess the role which Putin would prefer to endure during the four years until 2012 without a presidential position. The participants enumerated almost all of the high positions in the state:
1. The speaker of the State Duma
2. The chairman of the Constitutional Court
3. The chairman of Gasprom (the gas company), the richest corporation in the country.
4. The chairman of the party
5. Premier Minister (this position, which was taken by Putin, was only rarely mentioned because almost nobody believed that Putin would prefer the role of the direct subordinate to the president, who could theoretically fire him at any moment).
The loyalists also discussed their own repertoire of possible roles for Putin. They were sure that Putin (for the sake of the country) would find an extraordinary solution for how to stay in power after 2008 and to become Russia’s sole ruler. The first major proposal by the loyalists was to proclaim Putin as the national leader of the country. The docile servants in the party played with the idea of calling the National Assembly in order to adopt “the pact,” a type of concordat that would insist that the creation of a national leader should be “a basic element of the new configuration of political power in the country,” as could be read on the party’s official site at the end of 2007. The last time such a congress was convened was in 1613, in order to elect the tsar following the end of “The Times of Trouble.” The creators of the idea were confident that it would resonate well with “the increasing mass movement of citizens in all regions of the country which demands to elevate Putin in ‘the rank of political saints.’” By the end of 2007, it looked like both the Kremlin youth organization “Ours,” and a newer movement headed by lawyer Pavel Astakhov named “For Putin,” would be mobilized for the creation of national hysteria and to petition for Putin to stay in power for the next four years. Putin’s major ideologue, Vladislav Surkov, advanced a similar idea with his slogan “Putin as the national leader, is forever.”
The second major proposal by Putin loyalists placed him in the position of Tsar. Some of Putin’s active admirers, such as the famous Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov, inquired if making Putin a tsar was the best way to make the country stable and to avoid exposing Russia to the vagaries of elections. In October 2007, Mikhalkov initiated an open letter, supposedly on behalf of Russia’s creative intelligentsia, begging Putin to stay in power. However, the whole campaign, which appeared to be moving ahead with growing speed, ultimately did not go beyond the election of Putin as the chairman of United Russia (April 2008). Many of Putin’s admirers were discouraged by this seemingly modest event, which ostensibly did not add anything important to the role of Putin as the nation’s leader.
While the whole country was engaged in wild speculation about Putin’s third term, Putin concentrated his thoughts not just on the third, but on a fourth and fifth term (and perhaps with some luck and if his health allows, a seventh and eighth term). As hindsight puts into clear view, it is now evident that Putin was very much planning for the long-term. Indeed, nearly all of the experts were wrong; even those who assumed that he would remain in politics in some capacity, did not imagine Putin, a brilliant player of political chess, had a multi-move combination in mind, complete with some temporary sacrifices that would finally bring him a victory that he would enjoy for at least 12 years.
The catalyst which put Putin’s plan into motion was his agreement with Yeltsin when he received the scepter to rule the country from him. This agreement forged the basis for a modified version of the monarchic principle of the transfer of power. This principle has been used by rulers since the Roman Empire, when Emperor Augustus, who chose his son-in-law Tiberius as his heir, set up a new, quasi-monarchic principle for the transition of power. The same transfer of power occurs in modern countries, even if in a modified form. The principle was applied in Mexico, where from the 1930s until the last presidential election in 2000, the retiring president, who was also the leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, «tapped» a member of his cabinet to become the next PRI candidate.
The Feudal Pact between Yeltsin and Putin
When Yeltsin chose his heir, he only thought about those politicians who could guarantee him and his family immunity against prosecution for the crimes that they had committed, as well as those who could secure the family property. Yeltsin’s memoir Presidential Marathon (2001) revealed how he appreciated Putin’s loyalty to his former boss, Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, and how Putin saved Sobchak, a deeply corrupted liberal, from prison in 1997. The ailing Yeltsin was not at all interested in political power and could observe the agreement not to intervene in political life after his resignation relatively easily. It is notable that when Putin praised Medvedev as the president in October 2009, the characteristic he named first was Medvedev’s high level of trustworthiness, evidently alluding to the idea that his protégé does not renege on his obligations.
By all accounts, Putin immediately realized that his pact with Yeltsin was of great historical importance and was of critical consequence for his own future. To some degree, this pact was reminiscent of Khrushchev’s decision to guarantee his rivals Molotov, Malenkov, and Kaganovich, a decent life after their removal from power in 1957. This precedent in Soviet history ended up being a wise move on Khrushchev’s part, as he himself was ousted from the Kremlin in 1964.
In fact, the Yeltsin-Putin pact introduced the feudal model into the political life of the country, which supposes that if two political actors trust each other, they can achieve an outcome beneficial to them both. Following the conclusion of the pact, personal relations based on trust and loyalty completely replaced any legal requirements for interactions between actors in Russian political life. The next act in the Russian political process — Putin’s open choice for a new president — was taken for granted by Russians.
It is indeed extremely characteristic that Putin’s first edict — issued the same day Yeltsin abdicated from his job — was about Yeltsin’s immunity, which makes a mockery of the recent blog by Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatiana Yumasheva (Diachenko), that her father only asked his heir “to take care of Russia.” Putin strictly observed the articles of the agreement. Upon his death in 2007, Yeltsin was awarded the most bombastic of state funerals
Many sources, including Putin’s archenemies, converged on the view that Putin was stupefied by Yeltsin’s offer to become president, though at the time he was but an obscure apparatchik with only one year as the head of the FSB (the former KGB), with a popularity rating in 1999 at 2 percent. Although with all its advantages, it probably did not take very long for Putin to accustom himself to his position as the leader of a great country as well as to the belief that he had the historical vocation to save Russia from disintegration. Having become the head of Russia purely by accident, Putin very quickly showed that he did not have any intention of relinquishing his position at the top. Indeed, there is nothing unusual in Putin’s determination to stay in power as long as possible.
We know of very few national leaders who abandoned their duty with great pleasure and did not want to stay in power as long as possible. Most American presidents have either served for two terms or looked to serve a second term but were not elected. Only four, with Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson being the only exceptions due to the unique conditions under which they were elected into office, refused to seek a second term. The case of the 4th century Roman Emperor Diocletian, who preferred growing cabbage to remaining at the helm of the country, continues to mesmerize the imagination of people all over the world, even now more than a thousand years later. This is in great contrast to Russia where in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Russians watched their decrepit general secretaries cling to power until their last breath. The movie Moscow Does not Believe in Tears (1979) aroused elation among its viewers because the case of Diocletian was a clear allusion to the Kremlin’s elders. In today’s Russia, this emperor continues to be a rebuke to politicians besotted by power.
In any society there are leaders who want to prolong their time in power, yet the rulers of authoritarian societies covet their high positions with a particular passion. What more, the longing for power yields in intensity to the fear of being punished for crimes whose number accumulates with each year they stay in power. Of course, there is the chance of receiving immunity if the ruler can pick his successor under the condition that they will provide their predecessor with protection. But it is always a game when fate is involved, and who knows what would have happened to Yeltsin if he had lived much longer! Indeed, Putin’s political record is frightening, even if it has been exaggerated by his political enemies. If one is to believe Russian muckrakers such as Maria Salie, Yulia Latynina, Vladimir Milov, and Andrei Illarionov, Putin has had an alleged involvement in corruption activities on a grand scale in Petersburg and in Moscow. In the capacity of President, he has handled several disasters with a great neglect for human life, including the salvage of the submarine Kursk in 2000, the operations during the terrorist attack at the Moscow theatre Nord-East in 2002, and the massacre at the school in Beslan in 2004. Putin has also vindicated brutal actions against the civilian population during the appeasement of Chechnya. Putin’s fiercest enemies, such as Boris Berezovsky, are eager to blame Putin for the 1999 explosion of homes in Moscow and Volgodon which occurred on the eve of his first presidential election, while at the same time, Belkovsky and others maintain that Putin is the owner of a large fortune, mostly in stocks.
The Putin-Medvedev Pact: The Entrenchment of a New Tradition
Whatever the views were on Putin’s future role after 2008, in 2006-2007 no one in Russia doubted that Putin would be the one to choose his heir. Several months before the new presidential election, Putin almost mockingly played with the country, encouraging a guessing game of who the next president will be. In the beginning, it looked as though Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB general with evident anti-democratic credentials and a reputation as a ruthless operative, would be chosen for the position. Ivanov seemed like the natural choice in the opinion of the majority of elites as well as the public who believed in Putin’s devotion to Russian statehood and to the enhancement of Russia’s geopolitical status. Unexpectedly, the choice fell once again to an obscure apparatchik who, at first sight, seemed to be an absolutely inappropriate person to rule Russia by the autocratic methods used by his patron. Unlike Putin, Medvedev was brought up by refined Petersburg intellectuals and had participated altruistically in Perestroika. He was also known for ridiculing the concept of “sovereign democracy,” offered by Putin’s ideologue Vladislav Surkov. Now, Putin’s preference for this wild card has become more or less clear: Medvedev was exactly the kind of person needed for the implementation of Putin’s grand plan to stay in power for an indeterminate period of time — perhaps even to the end of his life.
As his subordinate, Medvedev worked closely with Putin for no less than 12 years, and complete obedience had seemingly satisfied his boss in this position. Being chosen by Putin, Medvedev got a gift that he did not in any way earn. It is natural to suppose that he was ready to accept any conditions that enabled him, a mediocre person without any traceable talent, to enter the historical textbooks as Russian president, even if only as a nominal one for a single term.
It would simply be unimaginable that both politicians did not thrash out the strategy and tactics of their joint behavior. They had to discuss the official and informal division of powers as well as their roles in society by anticipating the public reaction to their deeds and the host of people who would be wont to pit one against the other. It is hardly likely that they did not also think that some mild public disagreement between them was necessary to sustain belief in the vitality of the office of president, a maneuver which as further developments will show, worked perfectly as shown by the empty debate about the difference between Medvedev’s program for modernization and the Kremlin’s ideology about progressive modernism in Russia in 2009.
Not only did both politicians elaborate on the patterns of their future cooperation, but by all accounts Putin has considered the necessary precautions against the time when his friendly subordinate might turn his back on the promises of loyalty as a vassal to seignior and challenge his boss, taking the position of the president at face value. With this possibility in mind, Putin, on the eve of the presidential election, let himself be appointed chairman of the governing party. Now, with total control over both the State Duma and regional legislatures, Putin could easily impeach the president in case of emergency. The total loyalty of the so-called power Ministers — the FSB and the army — was another guarantee that a rebellion by Medvedev would be practically impossible. As prominent expert on the Russians elite Olga Kryshtanovskaia noted in February 2010, of the 75 new important appointments completed in 2009, only 2 could be considered as members of the president’s team, the rest are Putin loyalists.
The Failure of Prognoses about Medvedev’s Liberalism
In the aftermath of the election, it looked as if the legalists had won the battle of prediction. Putin formally transferred the scepter of presidential power to another person. For many people, Medvedev looked like the official ruler of Russia and would only need some time to impose his views on society. Putin’s instant appointment as the head of the government did not confuse legalists in the beginning. With President Medvedev holding almost absolute power, Putin was supposed to be a subordinate to Medvedev, just as all premier ministers were in post-Soviet Russia. (Yeltsin, during his 10-year tenure replaced 5 premier ministers, one after another; Putin dismissed 3 premier ministers during his 8 years of rule.) What more, during his first months, President Medvedev’s liberal rhetoric was so diametrically opposed to the political practice of the 8 years of Putin’s regime that legalists took his political platform as clear evidence that Medvedev was a “true” president of the country, and not a “figurehead.” (Soviet history is full of figurehead presidents like Mikhail Kalinin and Nikolay Shvernik with Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov with Khrushchev and Nikolai Podgorny with Brezhnev.)
The prognoses for a new Perestroika, or at the very least a new “thaw,” has inundated liberal media outlets like Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy. Some highly respected political analysts such as Dmitry Oreshkin believed that Medvedev saw himself as an independent politician and that he wanted to identify himself with the real liberal trend. He contended in a May 2009 interview with Deutsche Welle that Medvedev could fire Putin and replace him with another premier minister, sending him into political exile. However in January 2010, the same Oreshkin told online Russian journal Free Press that “Medvedev voluntary retreats in Putin’s shadow.”
The belief in Medvedev’s “liberal vocation” looked particularly convincing to some people because the members of The Institute of Contemporary Development, which was publicly proclaimed as the new president’s think tank, had published one project and article after another written by its leading members, all preaching radical liberal reforms. In 2009-2010 director Igor Yurgens and leading economist Evgenii Gontmacher publicly vied with each other in proposing various utopian projects in order to sustain, as noted by the respected analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, an atmosphere of a coming “thaw.” In its last document, «Twenty-first century Russia: an image of desired future,» issued in February 2010, the institute suggested the liquidations of the minister of internal affairs and the FSB, as well as Russia’s joining NATO. Wishful thinkers in Moscow and in the West looked for any event which could even indirectly attest to the existence of Medvedev’s power. In the aftermath of the 2010 Olympic debacle concerning the Russian athletes in Vancouver, Medvedev demanded the resignation of the responsible officials in the Ministry of Sport. One of them, Russian Olympic Committee chairman Leonid Tyagachev indeed resigned, and his actions were accepted by Russian optimists as a sign of presidential power. However, the following day, Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko, declared that Putin recommended that he remain in his position. Boris Vishnevsky, a prominent columnist, with evident sarcasm commented on this event with the words, “Again Dmitry Anatolievich, you did not pass the test.”
However, by the beginning of 2010 the majority of those who believed in Medvedev as an independent politician had abandoned the view that he was indeed the head of the county, and had begun to espouse one of two theories about the political equality of both leaders: “The split theory” supposes that both leaders have different views on many issues and fight “under the rug” with each other. The other “tandem” theory suggests the cordial cooperation of the two leaders.
The Fake Split
Those who shared the split theory took each of Medvedev’s liberal statements at face value. They interpreted his many proposals concerning the justice system and the fight against corruption as also being directed against the regime. “Splitters” studiously counted how many times each politician was mentioned in the previous media period and pointed to the frequency of which Medvedev’s name was mentioned.
In fact, the existence of «the split» is a total artifact. Several independent authors, like Leonid Radzikhovsky, have poked fun at those who talk with a straight face about the differences in the political orientations of the two leaders (February 2010). At the same time and after some hesitation, Putin’s loyalists also realized that they could mock the liberal projects linked to Medvedev, as did Alexander Oslon in February 2010, the director of the Public Opinion Foundation and a person known for his proximity to Kremlin operatives. According to data from the Fund of Public Opinion, in November 2008 more than two-thirds of ordinary Russians did not see any differences in the policies of either politician; only 16 percent had discovered “Medvedev’s own political course.” At the same time, according to Levada-center in March 2010, two-thirds of Russians did not believe that various Medvedev’s initiatives should be taken seriously. Such was their view on Medvedev’s proposal to reform the Interior Ministry and modernize the economy in the beginning of 2010.
The Imaginary Split as an Encouragement to Mild Opposition
While for many analysts, including this author, “the split” is no more than a ploy of the Kremlin political technologists. The view on the existence of a rift between these two key Russian politicians has become a real factor of political life in and of itself. At the time this text was written (March, 2010), some people took this phenomenon quite seriously. Several officials in Moscow and the provinces believe in the existence of a “split” and are afraid that they could be on the wrong side if a fight between the two leaders is real. They have tried to figure out whether a picture of Putin, or Medvedev, or of both, should hang in their offices, what size these pictures should be, and in what order they should be plastered on the wall. In February 2010, a curious case occurred in Omsk: While awaiting Medvedev’s arrival, three leading officials of the regional administration removed Putin’s picture from the poster of United Russia. All of them were immediately fired.
“The split” has also encouraged critics of the regime who had pretended to believe in Medvedev’s liberalism (perhaps some are, indeed, true believers), to undertake some hostile actions toward the regime. Alexei Dymovsky, a police major from Sochi, used You-Tube to denounce the corruption of his superiors in November 2009. In on a few weeks, almost 400 thousand people had looked at his site. Members of the sinister Moscow OMON, the special police unit for fighting protesters, followed his example and published an article in the liberal Moscow newspaper The New Times in February, 2010, citing facts about the corruption of their officers. It is possible that this and similar cases aroused some irritation in Putin, but they hardly had any serious political implications. In 2009, Putin and Medvedev both declared, literally in the same words, that they share “common blood,” pointing to their consensus on major political issues. The total lack of any serious disagreement between these two politicians was at the core of the first televised satirical show about them in January 2010: in it, two politicians showed their total consensus on everything in every moment.
The Fake Tandem
Another group of analysts, who believe in the equality of both politicians, have resorted to the concept of a tandem administration (until recently a term dedicated only for describing the harness for two draft horses or for a two-seated bicycle). According to the supporters of this concept, Medvedev represents the liberal trend in Russian politics, which is in tandem with Putin who represents an authoritarian rule. Some liberals (even those as clear-minded as Nikolai Petrov) went so far as to depict the existence of the tandem as “the hybrid of democracy and authoritarianism” (September 2009), elaborating on the tandem model as a condition for the stability of Russia, a great stride toward democracy, and a replacement of the traditional democratic division of power. The idea of the tandem, or “the binary model of power” (another term invented by Putin’s friends), was particularly pleasing to the official media and to Kremlin propagandists like Izvestia’s columnist Dmitry Orlov (January 25, 2010), or Valentin Fedorov, the director of the public opinion firm VTSIOM (December, 2009) who seriously discussed how the tandem allows a productive combination of two different political styles: “the provocative” of the President and the “conservative” of the Premier Minister. This sort of analysis is useful for the Kremlin because it allows them to preserve the veneer of respectability for those developments that show deep violations of the Constitution and the humiliation of the office of the Russian president.
There have been many duumvirates and triumvirates throughout history. One of the most famous triumvirates was that of Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaues Pompeius Magnus in the first century BC. There have been cases in Soviet history when three politicians ruled together, even if each of these incidents lasted only a short time. The triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev lasted only two years from 1923-1925. After Stalin’s death, the triumvirate of Beria, Malenkov, and Khrushchev would last only a few months until Beria’s trial (and then execution) in June 1953, and was replaced by the duumvirate of Khrushchev and Malenkov, which lasted less than two years before Malenkov was ousted from the position of premier minister in February 1955. With some reservations, we can also talk about the duumvirate of Brezhnev and Kosygin, which lasted a few years after Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964. All of these cases were real and the members of these arrangements, until their collapse, felt that they were indeed political equals. This is not the case with the guise of the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate, a union which has provided satirists like Dmitry Bykov with constant fuel for their arguments.
A tandem administration also enables an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the 2012 election. From time to time, both politicians make vague declarations about their intentions regarding this election. Again encouraging a guessing game about who will do what, while declining to refute the idea that only one of them will be the next president. However this time, the guessing game is anemic in comparison with the wild speculations on the eve of 2008 election.
The Real Face of Medvedev’s Liberalism
Since his election as President (and even once before as seen in his February 2007 Krasnoiarsk speech), Medvedev has incessantly vowed his allegiance toward democracy. However, despite Medvedev’s continued liberal harangues and countless empty proposals, most liberals (with great disappointment) and loyalists (with relief) recognize that Medvedev’s liberal intentions should not be taken seriously. During the past year, the public accumulated a number of facts showing that Medvedev did not make even one move toward a genuine liberalization of Russian society, and that he never challenged Putin and his acolytes in their suppression of opposition and political freedoms.
The October 2009 regional elections provided critical evidence of Medvedev’s status as a mere figurehead. Despite egregious violations of the most elementary rules right in front of Medvedev’s eyes in Moscow, he literally did nothing to protect the free election. Later, at a meeting of the State Council in February 2010, Medvedev formally endorsed the election results. He watched, without showing any discernable reaction to the discourteous treatment of the participants of the modest oppositional action. He did not even lift a brow when the constitutional rights were egregiously ignored of Liudmila Alexeeva, the famous 82-year-old human right activist, when she was arrested and brought to a police station because of her presence at the meeting on December 31, 2009. Of course, Medvedev did not even attempt to intervene in the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most prominent political prisoner in Russia. Medvedev also did not intervene in the corruption scandal involving Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, which developed at the end of 2009 into early 2010. Gryzlov colluded with the criminal adventurist Viktor Petrik, and became his coauthor for a bogus invention (the leading scholars of the country condemned it) that could be used to obtain billions in revenue.
At the same time, Putin ostensibly rescinded two of Medvedev’s foreign statements without concern for humiliating Medvedev before the international community. The first statement revoked was regarding sanctions for Zimbabwe, and the other about Russia’s policy toward Iran. The military doctrine of the Russian Federation, endorsed by Medvedev in February 2010, changed nothing when compared with the military orientation of Putin’s presidency, as noted by Moscow analysts like Leonid Mlechin. As in the past, NATO and the American anti-missile defense is still the main threat to Russia.
The Long-Term Plan
The first evidence that Putin had outmaneuvered everybody, from the experts to the public opinion, became crystal clear when in November 2008 Medvedev signed the edict to extend the term of the presidency from four to six years, which required a change of the Constitution. This action amazed the Russians because only a few months earlier the Kremlin had lamented about the necessity to treat the Constitution as a sacred document, which could only be changed in extreme cases. Nobody in Russia saw any practical demand for such a move. However, if we combine this bizarre act with Putin’s clear positioning as the national leader, in addition to the seemingly incomprehensible concern Medvedev expressed about the four-year length of a presidential term before a new election, we will understand Putin’s plan. Indeed, Putin refused to «take» the third term, which was readily available to him, in order to guarantee himself a legal reign after 2012. By 2024, he will only be 72 years old; still a young man by the standards of Russian history. As the chairman of the government in March 2008, Putin endorsed “The major goals of social and economic developments of the Russian Federation up to 2020.” In September 2008, Putin created a committee that will deal with the development of the power industry up to 2020. Another program was endorsed in August of 2008 for the radical reform of maintenance in the housing sector of the Russian economy, which should also achieve its target by 2020. In January 2010, he signed a decree about fighting alcoholism with the goal of curtailing the consumption of alcohol in the country by half by 2020. In December 2009, Putin was asked about his political future after 2012 during a Russians talk show, to which he responded with the biting words, “You will never see this event,” which was unanimously interpreted as a promise to never leave high politics.
Medvedev’s Important Role
There is no doubt that the role Medvedev plays for Putin is much more important than simply being a temporary caretaker of the Russian crown. Indeed, Medvedev plans to benefit from this temporary position. By all accounts, both politicians see the castling — the exchange of positions between presidency and premier minister — as a procedure that can be used for mutual benefit in the future. With Putin as president, Medvedev can be a premier, and if necessary, return to the presidential palace. For this reason, as Leonid Radzikhovsky noted in February 2010, they both “sit on the same bough” and now have a deeply intertwined fate.
The Political Basis for the Long Reign
Like Stalin in the early 1920s, Putin is quite aware of what he needs for the implementation of his goal in Russian society. Stalin’s political genius prompted him to look for a political basis in the party apparatus, which was refilled with new people almost immediately after Lenin’s death, diluting the role of the old Bolsheviks. The new cadres knew to whom they were obliged for their advancement, while the great “theorists,” like Zinoviev and Kamenev, looked for the best ideological argument to overthrow Stalin. In 1925, Stalin had organized the so-called «Lenin’s appeal,» inviting new, fresh members to the party, ignoring the traditional thorough vetting of the new applicants. By the early 1930s, Stalin had replaced most of the regional party secretaries with his candidates. With their support, he could solidify his power more and more. Stalin’s ideology about the construction of socialism in one country, as well as the necessity to exterminate class enemies, was a very successful cover for the installation of the totalitarian system.
Putin’s political basis is very different, and in some ways, unique in history. Political support of the regime has emerged in the process of societal transformations in the last two decades. As a result of this process, an absolute majority of officials — from the head of the municipality in a small village to governors and ministers, from a humble police or FSB officer to the generals in the army and FSB, as well as a considerable number of big-business men — were turned into people who had committed criminal offenses and illegitimately held private property. Not only the apparatchiks and business people themselves, but their children and relatives became hostages to Putin’s regime. The fall of the regime by whoever comes to power would mean mortal danger to the freedom and property of millions of people.
There is no doubt that Putin objectively encourages corruption and criminal ties in bureaucracy and business. The absence of any serious public trial of big apparatchiks or of business people during the 8 years of Putin’s regime is strong evidence of Putin’s view on the mechanics of power in contemporary Russia. Khodorkovsky aroused Putin’s ire because he openly challenged this policy, declaring to Putin’s face during their fatal meeting that he was contemptuous of the president’s protection of corruption. By all accounts, the members of the ruling class in today’s Russia are much more devoted to the leader of the country than were the Soviet apparatchiks in 1991. The latter did not have any serious property to defend, and most had not committed criminal offenses that could threaten their freedom with the new post-Communist regime. Putin’s ruling class is no less afraid of democracy than Putin himself, and for this reason they support all of his measures for the eradication of the vestiges of real opposition in the country. The apparatchiks at all levels of the governing party, United Russia, participate in the mocking of democratic values and the Western political model with great pleasure.
Another precondition of Putin’s “forever” reign is a zero tolerance policy for any public form of opposition. Putin has already brought the state of the opposition to almost the same level Andropov had achieved by 1984, when society did not have either charismatic politicians in the opposition, nor influential intellectual opponents. It is obvious that the regime is determined to keep this state of affairs for as long as possible.
The Ideological Fundamentals of the Long Reign
Putin’s team has elaborated on the sophisticated ideological support for his long reign. This team operates with several ideological instruments. The first is the necessity to inculcate the public with the idea of Russia as a besieged fortress, as well as the idea of Russia’s special role in history, which requires contempt for the Western model of a political system with particular focus on its democratic procedures.
Another component of the public ideology is based on the suggestion that Putin is the best leader for Russia and for its people and their traditions, both good and bad. This ideological move demands looking at Russia’s past and present realistically. The “realistic” approach unites Putin’s and Medvedev’s teams with the most radical liberals, like Yulia Latynina and Valeria Novodvorskaia, who have stressed many times over that the Russian people are not ready for democracy. Yurgens, the head of Medvedev’s think tank, did not hesitate to explicitly state in February 2010 that the Russian masses are not mature enough to elect their president, and that this should be the business of the elites. By this, he clearly meant the joint decisions of Putin and his boss. This extremely dismal vision of Russia and its people threads through the sensational book Around Zero (2009), which is an allusion to the early 2000s, and has been unanimously credited by Moscow reviewers to Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s closest aide and the main ideologue of the regime, even though the formal author of the book is Natan Dubovistky. Surkov has never disavowed statements of his authorship. Russia is depicted in this book as a society entrenched in deep corruption at all levels of bureaucracy and into unsolvable ethnic conflicts; a society totally indifferent to democratic values and in which the criminal mentality is the norm, as well as being a society filled with cruelties like sadism, drunkenness and drug addiction. The reader can only wonder how such a country can function and not perish. Moscow analysts could only speculate how much the author’s boss shares such views, since it is evident that Putin could not have been ignorant about this publication and its content.
The message of Putin’s team to the Russians, “you should enjoy the current leader because a new one will be much worse,” is addressed to all groups of the Russian population, from magnates to retired people. In some ways, today’s Kremlin is repeating the same slogan that was at the core of Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996, which scared the Russians into believing that the return of the Communists would bring problems to everybody: “vote or you will lose.”
For just this reason, the Kremlin did not object at the end of 2009 to showing the movie Tsar, in which Ivan the Terrible was described as a sadistic ruler of Russia who enjoyed the torturing of his subjects. This movie was a total antipode to the famous Eisenstein movie, which depicted the tsar as a wise monarch who created a united and strong Russia. Though Putin continues to abstain from a direct critique of Stalin, his staff recently allowed movies about the tribulations of people in the Soviet times, such as the serial about the life of Lilian Lungina (2009).
The Material Strategy
Looking to the distant future, Putin also has a clear economic strategy, with the main goal to maintain and improve the standard of living of the masses by any means possible, starting with the state employees and retired people first. This strategy supposes that the government will continue to accumulate hard currency in order to sustain the standard of living in the case of a decline in oil prices; the financing of investments in the production sector, infrastructure, science, and even the military will likely yield in priority to the maintenance of the existing standard of living.
It is not very often that political gurus are so shortsighted in their predictions of the behavior of a national leader, as in 2006-2007 when analysts in Russia and the West discussed Putin’s future. Putin’s moves now show with total clarity that the world sees in him a politician who would deserve the Machiavellian prize, if it existed. In the long line of Russian leaders only Stalin can claim the same level of sophistication as this former KGB major, as a politician able to calculate several moves ahead. It is evident that neither Khrushchev, who overlooked the plot gradually building up before his eyes, nor Gorbachev, who did not see Yeltsin’s plan to remove him from office, could claim the same prize.
The West should be prepared to deal with Putin for as long as it did with Brezhnev, Mao, or Castro. However, Putin, whatever his Machiavellian virtues, is far too much a demiurge of Russian history. His control over many key variables (the price of oil, the policy of Russia’s neighbors, the vulnerability of the Russian infrastructure, the conflicts inside the political elites, the behavior of police and the army during crisis and mass protests, the activity of nationalists, the patience of Russians, to name a few) is very limited. In the last few years, Russian analysts have mentioned the years 1917 and 1991 quite often, both times the collapse of the two empires was almost as unexpected for the rulers who had many plans for the future, as it was for the public. Still, the chances of Putin staying in power in the next decade are quite high.