By Matthias Schepp
In the summer heat, politics come to a standstill in Moscow even more than they do in Western capitals. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin leave for the Black Sea, while senior Kremlin and ministry officials bask in the sun at their dachas along the Moskva River or at luxury resorts on the Côte d'Azur. They are usually able to relax in the sure knowledge that, once their vacations are over, they will return to the corridors of power.
The problem is simple: Ministers, governors and other high-ranking officials can't decide whose side to take -- Putin's or Medvedev's.
Parliamentary elections will be held in December, and the presidential election three months later. Medvedev has indicated that he'd like to stay in the Kremlin, but Putin's intentions are unclear. Worried about their jobs and benefits, his former KGB comrades and associates from his days as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg are urging Putin, their frontman, to return to the Kremlin.
'Bulldogs Fighting under a Carpet'
This isn't open political competition. Instead, the issue of who will ascend to the most powerful position in Russia will be determined by Byzantine, behind-the-scenes intrigues. Indeed, little has changed since Winston Churchill compared Stalin-era power struggles to bulldogs fighting under a carpet: "An outsider only hears the growling," he said, "and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath, it is obvious who won."
The courtiers are watching with growing concern the trench warfare between Medvedev's and Putin's camps. Ministers on their way to Putin's office are ordered back to the Kremlin by Medvedev's people to meet with the president. In a morning speech to workers at a nuclear missile factory, Putin sharply criticizes NATO's attacks on Libya as "calls to a crusade." In the afternoon, Medvedev condemns Putin's remarks as "unacceptable."
The heads of the state-owned television stations are tearing their hair out over questions such as: Whom should we follow? What message should we deliver? And what programs should we broadcast to avoid making any missteps?
A Country Used to One Boss
A shadowboxing match has begun, and members of the political class can only be sure of one thing: that those who make any early moves in this game have a lot to lose.
In April, Gleb Pavlovsky, a liberal who has been a long-time adviser to the Kremlin in an unofficial capacity, praised Medvedev as the ideal candidate and warned against a Putin return to the Kremlin. But it wasn't long before he was shown the door. Conversely, a prominent member of parliament and Putin supporter was stripped of a committee post after criticizing Medvedev's Libya policy.
Still, are these decisions truly signs of serious differences of opinion? Have Medvedev and Putin become rivals, or are they a really working as part of a savvy team intent on stalling the public with diversionary tactics?
The establishment, at any rate, doesn't know what to fear more: a second Medvedev term or Putin's return. The president has fired several top officials and politicians with ties to the Putin camp or removed them from positions at state-owned companies. But the premier has also announced purges for the post-election period -- a warning to all those of questionable loyalty.
Either way, there is also little enthusiasm to see more of the Putin-Medvedev partnership. In fact, just the thought of it distresses top officials accustomed to bowing to authority. Russia has never been a country with two leaders at the top; it has no tradition of power-sharing. The czars saw themselves as absolute rulers designated by God. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's chief ideologue, made Putin part of this same tradition last week when he described the Kremlin's strongman as "sent from God."
In the Soviet era, those new to the power elite were always sure to get rid of its old members, often physically. The czar's family was murdered under Lenin, while Stalin had his adversaries killed or hauled off to labor camps. Even today, 20 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia's political culture is based on subjugation rather than compromise. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon who was Russia's richest man a decade ago, is now in a prison camp. Dozens of major business owners have fled abroad because they fear being brought to trial on either real or trumped-up charges.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was seen as a possible successor to President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and is now one of the Kremlin's staunchest opponents. But, these days, Nemtsov can barely muster 200 supporters to join in protest marches. All it takes is a word from the powers that be, and Nemtsov is locked away for two weeks. All of his attempts to register a new party have been stymied.
In the West, someone like Nemtsov could easily lead an opposition party and still hope to hold a government position at some point. But, in Russia, the Putin system has marginalized Nemtsov while creating a sham parliament full of parties dependent on the Kremlin.
When Werkstatt Deutschland, a Berlin-based nonprofit organization, recently decided to award Putin its annual Quadriga Prize celebrating "role models who are committed to enlightenment, commitment and welfare," it elegantly downplayed the fact that this once and potentially future president has led his country further and further away from Western values (eds note: the uproar attending this announcement prompted the sponsoring organization to cancel this year's award ceremony).
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