Ausgabe 19/2008

Russia's Dubious Duo Can Medvedev Escape from Putin's Shadow?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, have promised a harmonious dual leadership. But as Medvedev prepares to be inaugurated as Russia's new president, the two leaders' supporters are already gearing up for a power struggle.

By in Moscow

In the final days of the autarchic rule of President Vladimir Putin, trucks carrying weapons are underway in Russian once again. Those on Moscow's Red Square are merely preparing for a gigantic military parade, the first in 18 years, to demonstrate Russian military might on Friday -- two days after the inauguration of Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Meanwhile, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) to the south, trucks painted in camouflage colors are carrying armed troops across the border into Georgia, the former Soviet republic that has become a bone of contention between Russia and the United States since it announced its intention to join NATO.

The troops are merely being sent as reinforcements for Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway province of Abkhazia, or so Moscow claims. Officially, and with the blessing of the United Nations, the Russian peacekeepers have been upholding a ceasefire in the region for the last 14 years. But, under international law, Abkhazia is part of Georgia. Georgia, for its part, is controlled by its hotheaded president, Mikhail Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who receives support from US military advisors in return for his loyalty to the US. The situation has resulted in a tense face-off between Russian and American soldiers for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

In Moscow, the growing threat of war has become a noticeably common topic of conversation. And when Medvedev walks across the red carpet on Wednesday, past guardsmen in historic uniforms, and enters the Andreyevsky Hall in the Kremlin for his inauguration, he will begin a presidency that will be marked by conflict from day one. There have been repeated aerial attacks and skirmishes along the line separating Georgia and Abkhazia. On April 20, Abkhazians, or their Russian protectors, shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane. Then on Sunday, separatist forces in Abkhazia claimed to have downed another two Georgian drones.

Because Medvedev's image among hardliners has been that of a liberal weakling, Putin is pushing him to take a tough stance on Abkhazia. Now that the West has recognized Kosovo, against Russia's wishes, Moscow could be preparing to exact its revenge: the Kremlin's de facto recognition of Abkhazia.

The new president's first challenge could also be a test case for the supposedly unshakable harmony between Putin and Medvedev, which both men have sworn to but which is regarded with skepticism within the political elite.

Never in the period since the demise of the Soviet Union has it been less clear who will have the say in the world's largest country by land mass. Will it be President Medvedev, as the Russian constitution requires, or Vladimir Putin, the prime minister-designate? Kremlin expert and journalist Alexander Budberg predicts a tough power struggle between the two camps. "One can't do anything against those people who want to pick fights," he says. "They are powerful, cunning and have enormous resources."

Map: Georgia and its breakaway regions

Map: Georgia and its breakaway regions

At issue is Russia's future course. Will its relationship to the West will be characterized by confrontation or closer cooperation? Will the country be run more in accordance with the rule of law and its key industries privately operated, or will cronyism and government control win out?

Many Russians are better off than ever before. But in the Putin era, the country not only accumulated enormous revenues from its sales of petroleum and natural gas -- it also managed to amass considerable material for social conflict.

Inflation, at 12 percent and rising, has made life difficult for Russia's poorer classes. Even Medvedev concedes that "this is a serious problem," but hardly one that merits the attention of an inflated government bureaucracy, one in which hundreds of thousands of civil servants have become more and more audacious when it comes to filling their own pockets. Under Putin, only a handful of corrupt civil servants in senior positions were convicted of crimes.

Medvedev's portrayal of the country he is inheriting, after eight years of Putin's rule, is not flattering. In several appearances before and after his election, Medvedev has portrayed Russia as a country on the verge of stagnation. He has been sharply critical of the corruption "that replaces part of the political institutions today." He also admits that "a huge number of problems have accumulated" in Russia. For instance, Medvedev complains about officials who are "strangling small business." His motto is that "freedom is better than no freedom." And although he takes pains to avoid showing any disagreement with Putin in public, his supporters are pushing for a stronger market and less government intervention.

But if the new president hopes to be more than just a figurehead while Putin retains the reins of power, he will have to take on his predecessor's cronies in the intelligence community. There are already signs that this is beginning to happen. At a meeting of the Social Chamber, an advisory board appointed by the Kremlin, Medvedev agreed with sharp criticism of the courts' lack of independence. For insiders, it was an affront against Putin confidant Viktor Ivanov, a member of the Kremlin administration who has intimidated many in his position as a kind of judicial overseer. Medvedev's comment that Russia ought to avoid becoming "intoxicated" by its size was also a veiled critique of the excessive national pride Putin and his friends have repeatedly promoted.

Medvedev's call for a new soberness surfaced for the first time in an interview with his biographer, Nikolai Svanidze. In the 1990s, Svanidze, as the chief commentator on state-owned television, was considered one of former President Boris Yeltsin's propagandists. Putin supporters are now vilifying Svanidze and other liberals, whose advice and counsel the new president has sought, as "Yeltsinists."

One of Medvedev's confidants is Pavel Krasheninnikov. Krashennikov, a member of the Russian parliament, or Duma, was a former justice minister in the Yeltsin administration and is now a possible candidate for a senior post in the new administration. Medvedev also heads the advisory board of the Institute of Modern Development, a Moscow-based think tank that includes former Yeltsin allies such as former Minister of Economics Yevgeny Yasin, who has repeatedly dared to publicly criticize Putin's policies.

If Medvedev's friends had their way, a shift would occur in Russian foreign and security policy. Medvedev's advisors want to see the country return to an arrangement with the West, as in Yeltsin's day. They disapprove of Putin's tactless squabbles with the United States and his closeness to anti-American regimes like the ones in Iran, Syria and Venezuela.

As if he were already distancing himself from his successor, Putin has said it is "not necessary" to hang up Medvedev's portrait in his office, explaining coolly that there are "other ways of establishing working relationships." According to associates of the current president, his choice of Medvedev was not an easy one.

Moscow's scheming political elite, at any rate, continues to argue over Medvedev's future policies. One of the battlegrounds on which Putin's and Medvedev's supporters are gearing up for a showdown involves the dominant pro-Kremlin party United Russia, which is now headed by Putin. With its roughly 2 million members, United Russia brings together government officials and their allies in the business community, as well as the majority of the country's governors and mayors. It also dominates the Duma, Russia's main lawmaking body, with 314 of 450 seats.

"Veterans of the Yeltsin era," says political scientist Alexei Mukhin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, are flocking to Medvedev to bring about a "return to the Yeltsin model." But this attempt, says Mukhin, will encounter bitter resistance from Putin's supporters. "There will be war," he comments.

Unlike many countries of the West, Russia gives its new president almost no grace period. Immediately after his inauguration, Medvedev will have to set the tone of the policies he plans to follow in the combustible Caucasus region. But the odds are against him. When it comes to a test of strength -- be it in the Caucasus or in Moscow's domestic intrigues -- many Russians consider Putin, toughened by his practice of physical and political martial arts, to be the more experienced fighter.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 19/2008
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