Due West: Putin vs. Medvedev

Moscow is abuzz with speculation. There is no lack of scenarios for the presidential campaign in 2012. My favorite one is actually a “Putin vs. Medvedev” race. And I will try to explain why.

In the space of a couple of years, the mood in Russia’s big cities (and it is there that Russian politics were, are and will be made) has drastically changed. There is much less complacency, much more dissatisfaction with the authorities and a palpable irritation with the state media fawning coverage of the Kremlin and government. All this happens despite a fairly stable economic situation. The oft-cited price of oil seems to have little or no effect on how the people view their rulers.

Suddenly, the legitimacy of the system, which looked invincible as recently as 2009, does not look granted automatically any longer. As a journalist, I do not find it surprising: for the vast majority, political leaders are people from TV. And audiences get tired of politicians even in countries that have a much more diverse media than Russia does. In developed democracies, free and fair elections are a natural remedy in such situations. In Russia, the authorities influence both election outcomes and the way they are presented on TV through a variety of means. While this may bring tactical success, in the long run it divorces the electorate from the politicians and creates cynicism and mistrust. This is what happened in Russia. And this is why for a growing number of citizens the message of stability that was the main slogan of the Russian political leadership for a decade does not look as attractive as it used to.

Enter Messrs Putin and Medvedev. They evidently do not see eye to eye on many issues – due to difference in age, life experience and tastes. And I happen to think that their disagreements are genuine and are not faked. Both men are, at the same time, united in their desire to avoid revolutionary change. Essentially, as I had a chance to write earlier, they came to symbolize two different approaches to survival of Russia’s ruling class: keeping everything as it is or trying to introduce gradual change. Both approaches are fraught with risk. But come to think of it, they are in fact irreconcilable because you cannot simultaneously stand still and walk.

This is why I think that a Putin-Medvedev race is more than possible: it is close to inevitable, unless some serious arguments will be found by either of the two sides to convince the other to quit the race.

For Mr. Putin, quitting will mean a tacit admission that his time is drawing to a close. Even if he remains prime minister, his position as the undisputed political number one will be irrevocably weakened. This option though should not be discounted completely. As a British colleague of mine recently observed, “it lets Putin retire from active politics at the time of his choosing and claim that the model he created is so good that it works without him.” For Mr. Medvedev, leaving the racetrack would mean conceding that he was a caretaker president with no political future to speak of. I actually never considered this a viable proposition.

Both options have a serious flaw. In the eyes of the population, or at least a constantly growing number of them, this will be seen as yet another deal sealed at the top, and thus increase dissatisfaction and mistrust of the authorities, ultimately contributing to political instability rather than curbing it.

The demand for new faces in politics is steadily growing and, historically speaking, it is only a matter of time before this demand will start being satisfied, on both the right and left (with the latter tendency a clear favorite). Competitiveness in politics will be back in fashion soon. Paradoxically, only the Putin-Medvedev race has a potential to boost the legitimacy of the current political system more than any backroom deal does. However, the potential consequences for the two men will be very different. Mr. Putin cannot lose without a crushing blow to his reputation, while Mr. Medvedev, even if he lost, would have remained a serious politician, lionized by many in Russia and almost everyone in the West. This makes the decision on their respective futures even harder for both. It is an irony of fate, history, or God that political competition may be reintroduced to Russia by two people who have spent so much time making it irrelevant.

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What is Russia’s place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the “global West.” And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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