Kremlinology 2012

Twilight of a Seat-Warmer

Medvedev's worst week ever just keeps on going.

MOSCOW — Late on Thursday night, Sept. 29, after a week of snickers and open mockery, a decision was made: The president -- that is, Dmitry Medvedev -- would go on television and explain himself. Why had he, an acting president, with another seven months left in his term, gone up to the podium at the United Russia convention five days earlier and said, "It would be the right thing to do for the convention to uphold the candidacy of Vladimir Putin for the presidency." Medvedev, never a figure of strength and masculinity in a country obsessed by such things, seemed like he had been dragged through the mud and humiliated -- especially when Putin took his turn at the podium and announced that the decision had been made years ago. That one phrase seemed to negate Medvedev's three-and-a-half years in office. Medvedev looked like a broken man: His face was bloated, his eyes ringed with fatigue or misery -- despite the near-constant smiles. At times during his speech, it seemed like he might cry.

Seeing a man down -- a man long suspected of being a dauphin, a seat-warmer for Putin -- public opinion pounced. "Well, at least it's Putin, and not Putin," snarked KermlinRussia, the popular parody of Medvedev's Twitter account, highlighting the now uncontestable fact that Putin and Medvedev were and had always been the same person. (A few days later, Kermlin followed up with this zinger: "This is an unconscionable act toward journalists, who had spent four years training themselves not to call Putin president.") Citizen Poet, the satirical project of poet Dmitry Bykov and actor Mikhail Efremov, cast Medvedev as a hapless, childish Hamlet and Putin as the ghost of his father. The apparition appears and answers Hamlet/Medvedev's indecision -- "To be, or not to be?" -- with a simple, "You won't be."

When Medvedev fired Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister known to be extremely close to -- and thus protected by -- Putin, his rant about presidential authority convinced no one, not even Kudrin, who responded to the president's request for his resignation that he would consult the prime minister. That is, Vladimir Putin. The blogosphere did not let that one pass, either. A new joke began to make the rounds: "I'll consult the prime minster," says Kudrin. "No, I'll consult the prime minister," says Medvedev. (In my version, they race each other down the hallway to his office.)

It was not a good week. And so the presidential spinmeisters made the decision to put their man on television, to let him explain himself -- an unheard-of proposition in Russian politics.

The broadcast -- a roundtable interview with the heads of the three biggest state channels -- aired on Friday night. Prime-time shows were rejiggered and swapped out around it. Russian viewers saw their hobbled president, resplendent and sad in a cobalt suit, surrounded by the three graying, skeptical, almost nauseous-looking TV execs in Medvedev's lush library, just outside Moscow.

The first question came from Konstantin Ernst, director of Channel One, Russia's most important state channel. "What was the primary motive behind your decision?" asked Ernst, of the Sept. 24 announcement. "Usually, presidents seek reelection. You are a politician, and politicians are ambitious people. What was your ambition in making this decision?"

Medvedev's response was puzzling: "My biggest ambition is to be useful to my country and my people." Was the implication that he was not useful to his country as president? Had he not been useful this whole time? He didn't say.

Then Medvedev said something even worse: Putin and he are of similar outlook, and as they belong to the same party, why not just figure it out between the two of them? It's not so unusual, Medvedev said, leaning heavily, awkwardly, on the Russian rhetorical tactic known as America-does-it-too-ism: "Can you imagine Barack Obama competing with Hillary Clinton?" Medvedev said. "That would be impossible. They both belong to the Democratic Party, and their decision was based on who could get better results. And this was also how we made our decision."

It's a novel analogy, given that it proves exactly the opposite of what Medvedev wanted to prove. As one prominent Russian journalist put it, "Who told you such a stupid thing that you decided to go and repeat it to the whole world?"

If that weren't unconvincing enough, Medvedev gave another reason: "Prime Minister Putin undoubtedly remains the most popular politician in our country at this point, and his rating is even higher. Somehow, people tend to forget about that."

That one is tricky. Yes, Putin is technically more popular than Medvedev. There has always been a relatively stable gap in their poll numbers. Pundits both here and in the United States spent the weekend trying to crunch the numbers, trying to explain a dip here, a bump there. But somehow people forgot something else: Ratings, like everything else in the Russian political system, are not truly ratings, but simulacra.

"I have to tell you something," Oleg Savelev said to me once. Savelev is a sociologist at the Levada Center, one of several polling centers that monitor such data. "Our numbers don't track public opinion; they track the effectiveness of propaganda." That is, he went on to explain, if television weren't centrally formulated and subject to heavy self-censorship, if newspapers had wider circulation, if the Internet had a deeper penetration, the numbers would probably look very different -- which is precisely why all those soft controls exist in the first place.

Since the very beginning of the tandem experiment, public opinion has been formed in only one direction: Medvedev is weak and nerdy; Putin is strong, manly, decisive. Medvedev plays with gadgets; Putin rides Harley-Davidsons, shoots tigers. Medvedev deals with forest fires on the phone; Putin is on the ground talking to the people and walking through the smoldering embers. Three girls come out in miniskirts for Medvedev; scores of them strip for Putin. It's no contest, because Russians aren't that different from Americans in this respect: The show matters, and people love a winner. And the poll numbers show exactly this. Putin is always more trusted. He is so trusted that, ironically, Russians are even more likely to see Putin, the architect of the power vertical, not Medvedev, as the ostensible liberal, as the guarantor of democratic freedoms.

If invoking the technicality of poll numbers was circular, the rest of Medvedev's interview was a total wash. Asked why someone who had repeatedly spoken of his desire to run for a second term and then suddenly, inexplicably, changed his mind, Medvedev said: "Everything may change in this life. It's true we have long had an understanding on how to configure the power, should our people show us trust in 2011 and 2012. It's true, and we said so at the party convention. But at the same time, life could have made unexpected and paradoxical changes to our plans. What if the preferences of the voters change, for some reason? I must take this into account."

In other words, it would have only been possible for him to run if voter preference -- expressed not at the polls but in hall-of-mirrors polls -- had swung suddenly in his favor. Compare this with what he told the Financial Times in June: "I think that any leader who occupies such a post as president simply must want to run."

Why, Medvedev was asked, should voters even bother going to the polls if everything has already been decided for them? "I consider [such statements to be] absolutely irresponsible, misleading, and even provocative," he said in a stiffly practiced manner. "What are you talking about? The election campaign has just started. Let's ask ourselves a simple question: What if our people reject us -- both Medvedev and Putin? What will happen to these decisions by the convention? These decisions are merely the party's recommendation to vote for those people, that's all."

Apparently, he's in agreement with the commentary of the chair of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, who said last week that the results of the presidential election are unpredictable. I have no comment for either of them.

Does he feel pressure from the Internet, of which he is such an avid fan, asked the head of NTV? "Of course, Internet polls and their results are not legally binding for governments. Nor do they accurately reflect public opinion."

Are people becoming indifferent? Has television -- and this really was a fine question, coming from the heads of state TV stations -- degenerated into bread and circuses? Politics on TV, Medvedev said, is "a clear sign of poor living standards. The better our life is, the less attention people will pay to that, because they are more or less happy with their life." No political interview could really be complete without the invocation of the thoroughly post-Soviet premise that politics are bad and dirty, and that the effective decisions are being made without the mess of politics. You, good citizen, may have no impact on the political process, the thesis goes, but you can buy as many iPhones as you want -- thanks to the fact that we're handling all this for you.

When the interview was over, half an hour later, Medvedev looked like a man who had finally gotten a lot off his chest. Perhaps it had been therapeutic. But was it therapeutic for Russians? I doubt it. No one except the people who talk about the minutiae of Kremlinology even talked about it. Medvedev seemed to be slowly receding from the news and, perhaps worse, from jokes. Talk around town is not about what sort of prime minister he'll be, but how short a term he'll serve before he is phased out. Some wonder whether he'll even be named prime minister at all.

In the meantime, after the political chaos of the last two weeks, things are calm in Moscow again. It's quiet and boring again; stability is once again upon us. But already, the outlines of the next phase are starting to show. On Oct. 4, Putin, writing in a paper, Izvestia, owned by an old friend, introduced an ambitious new project: the Eurasian Union, a wide zone of economic and political cooperation in the post-Soviet space.

Medvedev still had some work to do, too, though: He fired a couple of prison officials and toured some barracks in Nenets autonomous okrug. Back in Moscow, the Duma was discussing Medvedev's proposed legislation to deal with pedophiles. His novel suggestion? Voluntary castration.


Kremlinology 2012

Disaster Politics

The real story behind Putin's return to the throne: Russia is headed for economic catastrophe, and nothing he does can stop it.

MOSCOW — On Saturday afternoon, Vladimir Putin announced that he would finally sync reality with formality and become Russia's actual president yet again. Once the initial sting wore off -- Putin seems on track to rule as long as Stalin -- cooler heads began to prevail. This will bring clarity and end the schizophrenia of the tandem contradicting itself, the thinking went. Putin was talking like he understood reform was necessary -- and even doubters had to admit that he was the only person with the political capital to accomplish it.

Just two days later, however, the ground shifted yet again. Dmitry Medvedev, coming off a couple of really bad days, very publicly fired the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin: perhaps the one person in the Russian government whom Western investors see as credible, the one who saved Russia when the bottom dropped out in 2008, the one holding the Russian government back by the scruff of the neck from total economic disaster. Kudrin's abrupt firing stunned everyone and completely destroyed the thesis that Putin's announcement would calm down Russia and its uneasy economy. Everyone knew there were power struggles going on behind the curtain, but rarely have there been so many elbows and knees jutting through, and, in recent weeks, actual people flying out.

What is going on? In short, no one really knows. But one thing is clear: Putin's return is not going to usher in a new reign of stability. If anything, the system is as unstable as it's ever been, and no one can tell when -- or into what form -- it will settle. And with the country's most competent economic official heading for the door while Russia stares down the barrel of another massive recession, it's probably not going to be anything good.

After Putin's surprise announcement on Saturday, everyone was asking: Why so soon? The substance of the announcement, of course, surprised almost no one. It's been clear for months that Putin was positioning himself, via motorcycle gangs and half-naked girls, for a comeback. But the timing was shocking. Going into the United Russia party congress, the conventional wisdom was that nothing about the presidency would be announced. It was too soon to hobble Medvedev, too soon to end the intrigue that only reinforces Putin's position as the country's arch arbiter. If you recall, last time around this announcement came in December; so why September, a full six months before the presidential elections? One explanation is the impatience of elites, evidenced by a growing unrest in the system that culminated with the implosion of the Right Cause project less than two weeks ago: Mikhail Prokhorov, the Kremlin-curated party's leader, bucked control and publicly slammed the very secretive curator of Russian politics, its eminence gris: Vladislav Surkov. It was a major, messy fail for the Kremlin, and it deepened the sense that the system has ossified to the point of inoperability.

The other, perhaps more urgent, explanation is the impatience of the market. At least $50 billion have leaked out of Russia this year. That's just one of many miserable economic indicators that point to big trouble ahead: the ruble at a two-year low, sliding domestic stock indexes, a budget that could barely be balanced even if oil were still at $116 a barrel (today, it's $107). Siberian oil fields are in decline, it'll be decades before Arctic drilling comes online, and the center of world oil production is shifting increasingly to the Americas. Then there's the looming economic crisis in Europe scraping at the door. None of it, frankly, looks very good.

So Putin's goal on Saturday may have been to step in and put a firm hand on the wheel, to assure everyone that the system was in fact functional at such a sensitive moment. The day before, behind the scenes of the first day of the convention, one of his strategists told a European news channel, "It's not the time to experiment with big political change in times of such economic uncertainty." Putin's return for, potentially, 12 years was supposed to signal an end to talk of such an experiment. The speeches he made at the conference -- including the one about government's duty to give "bitter medicine" -- were supposed to reassure foreign investors that he would implement urgent reforms. (Or, as the famous Kremlinologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told me the other day, "Modernize or die.")

And for a day or so, this strategy seemed to be working. People spoke of clarity, of stability, of concrete reforms. "Putin is a person of balance; he is constantly balancing the conservative with the liberal," said Kryshtanovskaya. (Putin is, in fact, a Libra.)

"During [Putin's] first two terms, there was so much money that the feeling was, why do you need anything like political parties?" Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center, told me after Putin's speech. "Now the situation is more complex and the system has to become more complex to accommodate it, and Putin can do it more effectively. And when the system lines up under him, you get rid of the complexity and decoration that was making it ineffective."

The Kudrin fracas completely turned this notion on its head. On Sunday morning, Moscow awoke to the news that Kudrin, in Washington at the time, had already started fulminating against the swap, which would make Medvedev his new boss instead of Putin. "I do not see myself in a new government," Kudrin said to reporters. "The point is not that nobody has offered me the job; I think that the disagreements I have [with Medvedev] will not allow me to join this government." On Monday, before a meeting of the Kremlin's Modernization Committee, Medvedev -- who had long clashed with Kudrin on budget issues, particularly increased military spending, which Kudrin has been staunchly against for years -- awkwardly, angrily read out a nasty pink slip from his iPad screen.

Kudrin's departure set off a new round of conspiracy-theory-spinning (was he just trying to swipe at Medvedev for taking a job many thought would be his? Was this a long-term strategy to become head of Russia's central bank?), until Tuesday night when he issued a new and more broadly explanatory statement to the press. He revealed that his kamikaze statement in Washington had been carefully considered. He also admitted that, due to his long-running fiscal conflict with the Kremlin, he had handed in his resignation to Putin back in February. Putin rejected it, telling Kudrin he was needed for the election season.

So, basically, Kudrin left when he felt the election season was over: the day Putin announced his return. "On September 24, the power structure in our country was determined for a long time to come," Kudrin wrote. "And I determined things for myself, too, after explaining my position." What was his position? "Over the course of several months, despite my numerous -- and public -- objections, there were decisions made vis-a-vis the budget that, without a doubt, increased the risk to the budget," Kudrin wrote. These, he added, would then spread to the rest of the domestic economy.

The whole situation, it turns out, was far simpler than anyone had thought: Kudrin was just fed up and, quite likely, did not want to be held responsible for a policy he couldn't control, especially on the eve of another economic meltdown. Kremlinology had become its own obfuscation. And now it looks like we're set to miss the biggest story in many, many years: The rigid system is teetering, and its key components are breaking down. Oil money is running out, the economy is sputtering, social discontent is growing, all of the massive problems that the Kremlin first threw money at and then ignored in favor of pointless political intrigue are coming home to roost. And the charades that the Kremlin used to be so skilled at pulling off in order to release political pressure are now falling flat because very senior-level participants are, essentially, defecting. There have been two such implosions in the last 10 days and, given the fact that they've only made the system more untenable for those who remain, there's no reason that they'll stop. 

Things are eerily simple this time around because things are eerily grim.

As for why Medvedev had to fire Kudrin even though Kudrin has publicly criticized him before, that's simple, too. Kudrin -- probably intentionally -- hit Medvedev at his weakest moment, which is why much of Medvedev's rant was about the fact that "No one has abolished discipline and subordination."

"Anyone who doubts the course of the president or the government can openly appeal to me with a proposal," Medvedev went on. "But I will put an end to any irresponsible chatter -- up until May 7," he said, referring to his last day in office.

In the meantime, everything's still more unstable than ever. Today came the news that the number of Russians living below the poverty line increased by over 10 percent in just the first half of this year. And Kudrin is still out of a job: evicted from his official dacha, a photo of his boxed-up office surfacing on Twitter.

While Kudrin packed his things, Medvedev was in Cheliabinsk, watching a military training exercise. Military spending, he said afterward, would always "be the government's highest priority.... Whoever doesn't agree with this can go work somewhere else. That's an order!" And so Kudrin did, perhaps because he discovered that there's only so much you can do to save a sinking ship, no matter how many guns it has.