Time Is Running out for Russia's Prime Minister Medvedev

Medvedev is now more a liability than an asset. He likely will not be retained after Putin's current term expires in 2018

Wed, May 17, 2017
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Relic of a bygone era?

Opposition leader Alexei Navalnyi’s recent corruption allegations against Russian Prime Minister and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev poses a grave threat to Medvedev’s political survival in that position.

The timing of the allegations is crucial, coming as the presidential campaign approaches as does Putin’s impending decision whether or not to retain Medvedev in the PM’s post.

Putin is not left undamaged with considerable potential political consequences. However, the decline in Medvedev’s political career began long before the recent corruption allegations.

Failure to challenge Putin

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One Russian analyst recently noted: “Medvedev, we discover, is not an influential liberal politician”. Although an overstatement, what is true is that Medvedev’s decline has been several years in the making.

As soon as he decided not make an independent run for the presidency in 2012 and then observed in complete silence Putin’s rollback of many of his liberalization policies, he became the object of bitter disappointment among young liberal elites and even some in the societal opposition, who saw in his political reforms and thaw the hope for a new perestroika.

A perestroika 2.0 might bring real regime transformation and democratization without the revolutionary upheaval of the 1990s, many hoped.

His failure to transform or break with his patron, Putin, and to insist on running for a second term was the beginning of Medvedev’s end.

During his presidency Medvedev showed some signs of being able to chart an independent course, instituting several liberalization policies: conducting a very liberal line on issues such as free speech and media, attempting police, prison, and judicial reform; and separating himself from Putin and siding with the West on the Libyan issue by having Russia abstain from vetoing a key UN resolution allowing Western powers to protect opposition and civilian elements.

Medvedev’s failure to stay in power and continue his reforms was deep disappointment for young and young-to-middle-aged Russians in the middle and creative classes and the elite with whom I spoke in past years.

The West’s violation of the Libya resolution by its direct interference on the rebels’ side in the civil war settled the issue in Putin’s mind whether to run for the presidency in Medvedev’s place while undermining confidence in Medvedev’s ability to lead on the part of not just Putin, but middle- and older-aged among the elite and even many in society who were long exasperated by Western interventionism usually undertaken at Russia’s expense.

Equally important, however, was Medvedev’s failure to build himself an independent power base by establishing a network of patron-client relations inside the state apparatus, placing some key sate structures under his control, and developing ties to opposition elements.

To be sure, Putin’s ties to the intelligence and security services would have made doing this without raising suspicions very difficult. But achieving some independence from Putin’s networks was possible.

If accomplished by the time the December 2012 protest demonstrations occurred, Medvedev would have had a chance to partner with pro-democracy elements in society and state and force Putin just to accede to reforms temporarily as occurred in the winter-spring 2011-2012, but as part of the presidential race’s political battle.

Russian opinion polls show strong support for free and fair elections, and Medvedev would have made and then seized a key issue in the race.

Even his defeat at the polls would not have meant the end but rather perhaps the beginning of his rise to power, if he chose to defect from the regime and lead the opposition al a Boris Yeltsin. Unfortunately, Medvedev proved too weak and/or loyal to Putin to take this leap.

Medvedev’s Mediocre Government and Navalnyi’s Expose’ 

Medvedev’s premiership during Putin’s third presidential term has had few successes. The most important is a very much improved environment for business activity in terms of reduced state interference, regulation and red tape.

Otherwise, the fall in oil prices and then the West’s pro-Ukraine sanctions have crippled economic growth and although Medvedev’s government has shown apparent competence in dealing with the economic crisis, the truth is that much of that success is based on former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s management of Russian finances and ‘rainy day’ Reserve and National Welfare funds, the creation of which was Putin’s policy.

Growth remains anemic, and Russian opinion polls show that Russians are increasingly impatient about the slow economic modernization and unsatisfactory standard of living, with 51 percent in a recent poll saying they were tired of waiting for such results from Putin.

Medvedev’s trust rating among Russians has fallen correspondingly, with 78 percent expressing trust in the prime minister in December 2009, 70 percent in May 2011, 61 in October 2012, 55 percent in January 2014, and 61 in August 2015.

The above forms the background of the ‘Navalnyi rolik’ revealing Medvedev acquiring significant riches through what appears to be abuse of his official position and suspicious largesse in terms of ‘investments’ from state-allied oligarchs into structures owned or managed by Medvedev’s families and friends.

The subsequent March 26 demonstrations protesting corruption (in particular Medvedev’s), included calls for Medvedev’s resignation and worse.

This had to impress upon Putin the potential for growing political discontent with him resulting from the taint of the long-standing ‘tandem.’

Medvedev’s approval rating has taken a considerable hit. A recent Levada Center poll shows a historical low of 42 percent of Russian trusting Medvedev and 18 percent “definitely supporting” his resignation from the premiership, with another 27 percent likely supporting such.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the fall in Medvedev’s rating, attributing it to the government’s difficult task and not to the corruption charges.

Coming as the presidential campaign approaches, the Kremlin obviously would like to contain the damage. But the charges cannot have left Putin undamaged and the possible implications are surely not lost on Putin.

Thus, as Putin begins to contemplate whether or not to retain Medvedev as PM during his fourth term, he must weigh the potentially powerful, even pivotal political consequences stemming from the Medvedev corruption scandal.

First, a fall in Putin’s popularity and thus authority has occurred.

Second, that decline should it persist could require letting local authorities deploy more ‘administrative resources’ and more underhanded methods of securing Putin a first round victory.

Third, excessive ‘irregularities’ in the presidential voting process could spark demonstrations just as perceptions of election fraud in the December 2012 Duma elections — plus Putin’s decision three months earlier to run for the presidency in Medvedev’s place — led to mass protest demonstrations.

Fourth, demonstrations could conceivably lead to unintended consequences, ranging from revolution from below or above to chaos and civil war to a siloviki-led hardline coup. This is a familiar pattern across the globe, granted one sometimes encouraged by outside democracy-promotion efforts, political interference, and post-takeover endorsement (see Kiev 2014).

In short, to shore up his own authority, there are now good reasons across the board to terminate the already tenuous tandem.

Unfortunately, we can never be absolutely confident that Medvedev’s fall was the result of the trend reviewed above or follow through on the alleged agreement between Putin and Medvedev during the August 2011 fishing trip.

That supposed deal exchanged Medvedev’s foregoing a second presidential term in favor of Putin’s return to the Kremlin for Putin’s promise to appoint and leave Medvedev as prime minister until the end of Putin’s third presidential term.

In some ways, the decline in Medvedev’s stock now is timely for Putin if its damage can be limited. If he was planning to remove Medvedev, he now has a very good reason to do so; one that allows the resignation to accrue Putin’s benefit, as one who does not tolerate the corruption he has failed to stamp out all around him.

Moreover, the impending election allows delaying the premier’s resignation until after the campaign. It allows Putin to remove Medvedev without appearing to bend to pressure; something he prefers not to do.

He can remove Medvedev a year from now, using the opportunity that a new term provides in terms of requiring a new start and thus making changes. The same factor allows Putin to remove Medvedev without having to admit a mistake in ‘tandeming’ with and promoting him to Russia’s top office.

Source: Russian and Eurasian Politics

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