Best Supporting Actor in a Lead Role
After 100 days, there’s no question who’s the real star of Moscow's show. by Aleksandr Kolesnichenko 18 August 2008
MOSCOW | Noon on 15 August marked 100 days since the inauguration of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But it’s still portraits of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin
, not Medvedev, that decorate government offices.
In the past three months, Medvedev has done little to consolidate his power, and during the Russia-Georgia conflict, it was Putin who assumed the role of wartime leader, flying to a spot just outside the conflict zone while Medvedev stayed in Moscow.
The president stopped short of addressing the nation over the conflict. Instead, Medvedev's response was limited to a conference with security officials, during which he explained that Russian troops intervened to protect Russian citizens, as residents of this Georgian pro-Russian province have Russian passports.
By contrast, Putin, in Beijing for the Olympics opening ceremony, canceled a scheduled visit to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk and flew to Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia's North Ossetian Republic. He visited a hospital, talked to refugees, and heard accounts from military officials, although the military answers directly to the president under the Russian constitution. On his return to Moscow, Putin gave orders to Medvedev that the government should provide 10 billion rubles ($410 million) for reconstruction in South Ossetia and launch an investigation into civilian deaths there.
Putin attended cease-fire talks between Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, although the prime minister's presence was not formally required. In perhaps the only show of deference to the president, Putin did not accompany Sarkozy and Medvedev when they read a joint statement after the talks.
But such stage management was not likely to fool anyone. The conflict served only to underscore the obvious: it is Medvedev, not Putin, who remains a secondary figure in foreign and domestic affairs.
The markets seem to agree. The RTS index, traded on the Russian stock exchange, plunged by more than 10 percent 24 July after Putin threatened to send a doctor to Igor Zyuzin, chief executive of the Mechel coal and steel group. Putin has accused Mechel of tax evasion, and Zyuzin, pleading illness, had missed a meeting with the prime minister.
It was not until five days later that Medvedev reacted to the market’s drop, describing Russia's stock market as one of the world's most attractive and promising. The market, in turn, took no heed: the index stayed substantially below its high of the week before.
"The lack of any reaction to Putin's attack for five days was followed by that stupid remark about the stock market,” said Vladimir Milov, a deputy energy minister early in Putin’s tenure as president and now director of the independent Institute of Energy Policy. “So, this is the president. Do we have a president in Russia at all? It seems that we do not."
Asked in July by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center "Who holds real power in the country?" four times as many respondents named Putin as Medvedev. Polls show Putin with a big lead over Medvedev in job approval and confidence ratings as well.
"Television shapes public opinion. On the TV screen Putin looks more resolute than Medvedev, he uses strong words and has an image as a tough politician. The masses like it," said Oleg Savelyev, an analyst with the Levada Center.
Medvedev, who turns 43 next month, has a reputation as an energetic young liberal
. He has declared as his priorities a push for innovation, a fight against corruption, and the protection of small and medium-size businesses from the vagaries of the bureaucracy.
Valery Fedorov, director of the Russian Public Opinion Study Center, said the president's statements are tailored to the prevailing political winds. "Dmitry Medvedev offers only popular initiatives. Everybody talks about corruption as people are sick and tired of it. It’s the No. 2 issue after rising prices.”
On economic policy, Medvedev has yet to distinguish himself. He enjoys the same good fortune as his predecessor, in near-record-high energy prices, a bulging budget surplus, and fat foreign currency reserves. But he faces the same challenges as well, in lagging competitiveness outside the energy industry and persistent inflation.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Applied Policy Institute and a scholar on Russian leadership, said Putin remains a "shadow tsar" whose allies dominate the executive branch.
In a country where the ability to lead often depends on manipulating feuding factions and rewarding loyalty, only two of Medvedev’s 84 cabinet members are considered “his men,” Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov and Nikolai Vinnichenko, director of the Federal Bailiff Service.
The president has two key allies in his administration, Konstantin Chuichenko, head of the Audit Office, and Sergei Dubik, head of the State Service Office.
"There is no balance of power between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. Medvedev is still much weaker. He doesn’t have a team of his own. He remains a member of Putin's team," Kryshtanovskaya said.
LAW AND ORDER
Some Russians hoped that Medvedev's era would bring about "a political thaw," the expression closely tied to the Khrushchev era when repressive Stalinist measures were eased.
"The president says all the right things. His statements about the courts, corruption, and the rule of law inspire hope," said former Soviet dissident Lyudmila Alekseyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization.
But no thaw seems forthcoming. Valery Panyushkin recently argued in the opposition magazine The New Times
that the first sign of liberalization would be the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but things have only gotten worse for the former oil tycoon. Sentenced in 2005 to eight years in prison for tax evasion and fraud, Khodorkovsky faces a new trial. He is accused of conspiracy to steal 892.4 billion rubles ($38 billion) worth of Yukos oil between 1998 and 2003.
Alekseyeva said the new charges against Khodorkovsky are hardly surprising. "We have been living under a diumvirate, and it’s difficult to tell acts of the new president from acts of the old one."
Kryshtanovskaya, of the Applied Policy Institute, said, "Medvedev is associated with bright, optimistic expectations. But these expectations are based on what he says and nothing else."
But the new president does have some successes under this belt. Commentators credit him with ending a conflict among security agencies that broke out in late 2007 and early 2008. In October, members of the security forces arrested the then-director of the country’s drug control agency, Gosnarkontrol, on corruption charges a year after his agency had investigated a smuggling ring in the Federal Security Bureau.
But there have been no new arrests after the dismissals of the Gosnarkontrol head and the Federal Security Bureau chief in May.
"Medvedev managed to settle the conflict, which Putin had been unable to handle at one time," said Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. "This is incredible considering the ambitions of Putin's cronies."
Another success was the July G-8 summit in Japan, a major international event in the first three months of Medvedev's presidency.
In contrast to Putin, who at the February 2007 Munich security conference accused NATO of breaking its word to Russia by moving eastward, "Medvedev succeeded in introducing gentle changes into Russia's foreign policy course,” Mukhin said. “His statements were absolutely pragmatic without the Munich drama, and naturally, they generated interest in the EU and NATO."
Medvedev spoke only against the deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe. The United States plans to site missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter what it says is a possible threat from Iran. Medvedev persuaded the EU to begin negotiations with Russia on a new partnership agreement, something his predecessor tried unsuccessfully to do for 18 months.
Still, experts stress that the president has little autonomy in foreign policy. "The ghost of Putin haunted the G-8 summit. Everyone could see that Medvedev was speaking cautiously only about matters on which he had an agreement [with Putin]. He did not make impromptu remarks. He had to coordinate all his actions," Kryshtanovskaya said.
Interviews that Medvedev and Putin gave to foreign journalists in late May were revealing. While talking to Chinese journalists Medvedev limited his comments to bilateral economic cooperation. Putin, in an interview with the French daily Le Monde,
touched on the whole spectrum of foreign policy issues, including defense, although the Russian constitution delegates matters of security and defense to the president.
The war in South Ossetia could be a test for Medvedev similar to the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea that marked Putin's 100th day as president in August 2000. In one way, Medvedev passed: Russia took the upper hand in the clash.
In another way, he failed. Not only did he appear dominated by Putin, but the conflict might also force him to revise his priorities, which he has hardly been a forceful champion for in any event.
“The military-political force majeure
makes it impossible [for the president] to stick to his earlier-declared plan for the country's development,” said Dmitry Badovsky, deputy director of the independent Institute for Social Systems think tank. Badovsky said the conflict gives the government an excuse to shift its attention from the economic reforms Medvedev professes to believe in to military mobilization and increased defense spending.
If Medvedev’s successes seem minor during this first 100 days, then so do his failures. Russians have a joke about it: Medvedev catches a magical fish and asks it to grant him three wishes – a hockey victory over Canada, a football win over the Netherlands, and victory at the Eurovision song contest. The fish complies and then asks, "Why are the wishes so strange? Presidents usually ask me to build a new capital, win a war, or expand the country." Medvedev is surprised, "Could I really ask that?"
Being the butt of jokes is an unenviable position for a president, and that implicit lack of respect shows up in other ways. Tradition requires that Russian bureaucrats hang a portrait of the current head of state in their offices. But so far, none has dared remove Putin from the wall. Some solve the problem by buying photos of Putin and Medvedev together. One store in Moscow offers six double portraits for prices ranging between 1,900 rubles ($80) for a roughly 20-by-30-centimeter image to 16,600 rubles ($700) for a roughly 65-by-90-centimeter oil on canvas.
Duma member Valery Ryazansky, deputy secretary of the ruling United Russia party's general council, said both leaders "very sensibly share their duties." He would not reveal whose portrait hangs in his office.