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Forever Putin?

Dmitry Medvedev; drawing by John Springs

However he felt about Kasyanov, Putin was careful not to go too far. After he dismissed him, Putin tried to persuade Kasyanov to stay in the government in a lesser capacity and at some point they talked about him becoming mayor of Moscow (an elected post, but the Kremlin could arrange the outcome). But Kasyanov decided that he could not cooperate with the Putin regime after the horrific hostage-taking at a school in Beslan in September 2004, which Putin used as an excuse to impose laws that significantly restricted electoral rights. In February 2005, a year after his dismissal, Kasyanov announced at a press conference that he was considering a bid for the presidency in 2008. The Kremlin’s response was to have Russian prosecutors declare that they were investigating Kasyanov for allegations that he used his office as prime minister to purchase a luxurious dacha outside Moscow for well under market value.

The Kremlin’s campaign against him provoked Kasyanov to take more radical positions; he began to harshly criticize Putin for destroying Russia’s fragile democratic institutions and replacing them with an authoritarian system of “vertical power.” In 2006 Kasyanov formed his own movement—the Russian People’s Democratic Union—and teamed up with former chess champion Garry Kasparov to create the political coalition Other Russia, which organized a series of street protests against the Kremlin’s repressive policies in cities all over the country. Since then Kasyanov’s party, which has over fifty regional branches, has withdrawn from the coalition, but acts in close concert with all the democratic opposition movements, including Solidarity, founded in late 2008 by Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, who supported Kasyanov’s candidacy for president in the 2008 elections.2

Kasyanov was prevented from registering as a presidential candidate when election officials claimed that many of the two million signatures he gathered to support his bid were fake. He would probably have made a poor showing even if he had been allowed to run. Respected by his fellow democrats, Kasyanov has little appeal for ordinary Russians. His reputation as “Misha Two Percent” continues to dog him, and, as one political observer put it: “Kasyanov conveys an impression of plumpness, satisfaction and good fortune. While that might go down well in a country like Denmark, it doesn’t work so well in Russia, where 84 percent of the population lives in poverty.”

Critical of Putin, Kasyanov expresses great admiration for his first Kremlin boss, Yeltsin, claiming that after Yeltsin retired, the two became close. Kasyanov tells us that Yeltsin approved strongly of his decision to join the opposition movement and gave him secret advice on strategies to use against Putin: “He understood that everything he had done to construct a democratic society was destroyed by the very man who he had placed in power. To be deceived by this man was very hard for him.”

In fact, it is unlikely that Yeltsin considered Putin, a former career KGB officer, to be a democrat when he designated him as his heir apparent. As Stephen Cohen points out in his provocative and insightful book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Yeltsin’s main goal was to ensure that he and his family would not face criminal investigations for corruption after leaving office, and Putin promised him immunity from prosecution. Cohen has little use for the idea that Yeltsin brought democracy to Russia. In his view, Gorbachev deserves the main credit, particularly for the policies of glasnost and perestroika he introduced in the late 1980s. When Gorbachev was forced out of power in 1991, he writes, Russia lost a golden opportunity to modernize, and “Gorbachev’s model of evolutionary democratization was deleted from history and thus from politics.”

As Cohen stresses, the emergence of Putin was the result of Yeltsin’s “de-democratization.” The US contributed to this trend by insistent demands that Russia implement economic “shock therapy”—a policy of large-scale privatization and removal of state subsidies and price and currency controls—while it gave uncritical support to Yeltsin. Once Putin came to power, US policy continued to be misguided and counterproductive. By “praising the despised Yeltsin and his shock-therapy ‘democrats’ while condemning the popular Putin,” Cohen writes, the US “further associated democracy with Russia’s social pain and humiliations of the 1990s.”

Cohen observes correctly that many Russians are deeply suspicious of the West and its notions of democracy, even those in the younger generation. A recent poll of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds by Moscow’s Levada Center showed that 40 percent view the US in a negative light because they think it is trying to undermine Russia’s stability. But Cohen goes too far in putting the blame for such views primarily on American “crusaders” for democracy. Xenophobic tendencies in Russia, which have increased dramatically since Putin became president, are also the result of the Kremlin’s extensive anti-Western propaganda efforts through the state-controlled press, radio, and television.

In Cohen’s opinion, Washington should refrain from promoting democracy in Russia because this will lead only to more distrust on the part of the Russians. But the US can hardly ignore the murders of journalists and human rights workers that are committed at such an alarming rate there. Indeed, Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow and a former close colleague of the two murdered journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, feels strongly that the US government should be pressing the Kremlin harder on human rights: “Making isolated statements when another person is killed is not enough,” she told me on a recent visit to New York. In her opinion the US should collaborate with the European Union and deliver a strong message to the Kremlin: “The killings are intolerable. They have to stop.”

Asked about how Kasyanov and other leading oppositionists might address Putin’s dominance, Lokshina observed: “The opposition parties are not making a difference. They have adopted an underground mentality, criticizing the government nonstop and not offering anything positive.” Lokshina is not alone in her views. Marina Litvinovich, a senior member of Garry Kasparov’s opposition group United Civil Front and a prominent human rights activist, wrote an impassioned piece in October, urging Russian democrats to adopt a different strategy. Rather than criticizing Medvedev, why not, she wrote, assume that he means what he says and publicly offer him support?

Litvinovich’s question was inspired by Medvedev’s much-discussed September article “Go Russia,”3 in which he pointed out that widespread corruption and an economy based on exports of raw materials were hindering Russia’s progress. He proposed that Russian citizens support him in modernizing the economy and renewing the political system by means of free competition among political parties.

The democratic opposition, not surprisingly, was highly skeptical of Medvedev’s motives in his “Go Russia” piece, especially after the October 11 regional elections, which were widely reputed to have been rigged in favor of the Kremlin-controlled party, United Russia. Litvinovich suggested putting aside the skepticism:

The “change from above” that Medvedev proposed can only succeed with support from below. In this situation the [democratic] opposition must try to fill the role of society’s avant-garde in modernizing the country.

Litvinovich urged her fellow democrats to “pressure Medvedev so he moves into our corner, and not into Putin’s. We need to break up their tandem.”

Litvinovich’s article created a furor in Kasparov’s party. For proposing alliances with Medvedev, she was denounced as a traitor and removed from her post as executive director. But Medvedev’s second annual state of the nation address, delivered on November 12,4 added weight to her arguments. Predictably, members of the democratic opposition dismissed as empty rhetoric Medvedev’s speech in which he again discussed plans for modernizing the Russian economy, fighting corruption, and reforming the judicial and law enforcement systems. But he did mention concrete reforms—such as abolishing the requirement of collecting signatures to be on the ballot in regional elections and lowering from seven to five the percentage of votes required for a party to be represented in all regional parliaments.

More importantly, Medvedev made unprecedented criticisms of Putin’s record. He observed, for example, that Russia’s industrial infrastructure and oil and gas production facilities, which provide most of the country’s revenue, were built in the Soviet era:

It was not we who built it. It is still keeping our country afloat today, but it is rapidly depreciating…. We need to recognize that we have not done enough over these last years to resolve the problems we inherited from the past. We have not freed ourselves from a primitive economic structure and humiliating dependence on raw materials.

The message was clear: after almost a decade of Putin at the helm, nothing has been done to improve on what Soviet leaders had created. Although Medvedev used the term “we” when talking about the government’s failings, the blame falls squarely on Putin rather than on Medvedev, who has been president only since May 2008 and has not had the power to implement significant changes on his own.

Medvedev was also harshly critical of Russian policy in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, which Putin has orchestrated: “The level of corruption, violence, and cronyism in the North Caucasus republics is unprecedented.” He announced that he would appoint a special boss for the North Caucasus, who would be directly responsible to the Kremlin (and thus in a position to overrule Chechnya’s brutal president, Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Putin installed and has heartily endorsed).

Just days after his speech Medvedev spoke at the congress of the United Russia Party, which Putin chairs, in St. Petersburg. In a clear reference to the fraudulent October elections, Medvedev—who is not a member of United Russia, or any party—said that the party had not won the contest fairly in some regional branches and argued that “democracy exists not for parties, those in government or in opposition, but for citizens.”

The crucial question, if we accept Medvedev’s calls for reforms as genuine, is whether or not he has the power to carry them out. Although he has the constitutional authority to dismiss his prime minister, as Putin did with Kasyanov, the pro-Putin United Russia Party dominates the Duma, which would vote on his replacement. Medvedev is known to have the support of the so-called civilniki—a group of economists, technocrats, and lawyers allied to Vladislav Surkov, his deputy chief of staff. But Putin’s rival siloviki clan, led by his deputy prime minister Igor Sechin, is believed to be more powerful, because of its links to the security and law enforcement agencies. And then, of course, there is Putin’s popularity with the Russian electorate (a December poll gave Putin an approval rating of 68 percent, compared with Medvedev’s 58 percent).

But that is not the whole picture. Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party, the second most powerful in the Duma, with fifty-seven seats, has recently shown a clear preference for Medvedev over Putin, mainly because of Putin’s failure to modernize the economy. More significantly, the law enforcement organs do not represent a united front. The FSB (successor to the KGB), the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and the Prosecutor’s Office are feuding among themselves and all have been the focus of corruption scandals that have resulted in dismissals of high-level officials.

Medvedev’s promise in his November 12 address to “take some very strong measures to cleanse the ranks of police and special services and rid them of the unworthy” suggested that there would be further shake-ups, which could weaken Putin’s power base. Indeed, the tragic death, just four days after Medvedev’s speech, of Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian lawyer for a British investment fund who had been languishing in prison for a year on bogus tax fraud charges, gave Medvedev the impetus to follow through on his promise. After it was revealed that Magnitsky died because he was denied crucial medical treatment and that he had produced evidence against corrupt MVD officers, Medvedev fired twenty senior officials in the Federal Prison Service and ordered a criminal investigation into the case.

In mid-December he dismissed Anatoly Mikhalkin, head of the tax crimes unit in the Moscow police department, who had been a key figure in the investigation of the investment fund for which Magnitsky worked. And on December 29, the day after a shocking report on the Magnitsky case was issued by the Moscow-based nongovernmental Public Oversight Commission, Medvedev dismissed the deputy chief of the prison service and signed a law making it illegal to hold persons accused of tax and other financial crimes in pre-trial detention.5

Not suprisingly, Medvedev has not taken on the most powerful agency, the FSB, which is filled with Putin’s cronies, despite press reports that the FSB was deeply involved in the Magnitsky case. But he has at least made some positive first steps toward reform of the law enforcement system.

Maxim Trudolyubov, an editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti, has pointed out that Putin and Medvedev appeal to different audiences: Putin to the less-well-off Russians who depend on the government for their income and get their news from state-controlled television, and Medvedev to the narrower constituency of better-educated, more prosperous Russians who travel abroad and use the Internet. Although Putin’s audience is much larger, it is politically passive and probably will remain so unless oil prices plummet and the Russian economy then falls into an acute crisis. Medvedev’s constituency is where the pressure for change would come from.

As Stephen Cohen reminds us, there are several precedents in Russia’s past of significant reform initiated from within the ruling elite. Who, for example, would have expected Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin in 1956 and his subsequent program of de-Stalinization, or the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the late 1980s? Although Medvedev, who has been a Putin loyalist for many years, may seem an unlikely person to undertake such reforms, the possibility that he has become a vehicle for expressing discontent with the current course of Kremlin politics gives some grounds for hope that Putin will not be around forever.

—January 13, 2010

  1. 2

    On Nemtsov and Milov, see my article “The Truth about Putin and Medvedev,” The New York Review, May 15, 2008.

  2. 3

    The full English text appears on his Web site, http://eng.kremlin.ru.

  3. 4

    The full text appears in English on Medvedev’s Web site.

  4. 5

    For more on Magnitsky, see my post “Death in Detention: Russia’s Prison Scandal,” NYR blog (blogs.nybooks.com), January 7, 2010.

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