All Change in Russia â€“ But No Change At All
Balakirev considers the Putin-Medvedev handover
After a week in Russia where reminders of past Soviet and pre-Soviet glories were much in evidence, clues to the future under Dimitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin are still hard to find. Medvedev was sworn in at a stunning ceremony which looked more like a tsarist coronation than an inauguration. The next day, the ex-president, Putin, was voted in as prime minister by Russiaâ€™s parliament.
Then, on Friday, Russiaâ€™s annual “Victory Day” holiday, the tanks rolled, as the week’s consolidation of political authority was given tangible expression with the first major military parade through Red Square since the 1991 Soviet collapse. For outsiders, the blatant appeal to imperial nostalgia may have seemed disturbing. But there are more important concerns about what was not on display. Specifically, we do not yet know how the Medvedev-Putin duumvirate and the machinery of power will function.
Here’s what we do know.
After eight years in power, most of that time with Medvedev at or near his side, Putin has stepped “down” to become head of government. He did this ostensibly to remain in compliance with constitutional term limits.
In the past, under both Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the prime minister was essentially a public whipping boy, someone to take the blame when things went wrong. Clearly, the notoriously thin-skinned Putin is not about to put up with that sort of nonsense from his protÃ©gÃ© Medvedev. So it’s all change at the PM’s office, with Putin about to get up to 11 deputies (compared with five in the recent past). He’s bringing in his own press and protocol officers, and the press corps assigned to the building where the prime minister sits, called the White House, have now been banned from most areas.
It’s not hard to guess what’s next. Instead of the head of government being held responsible for every pothole in the country, authority and accountability will presumably descend to ministers and deputy PMs. None of this is necessarily negative. Managing Russiaâ€™s mammoth bureaucracy is more than a one-man job, as Medvedev himself well knows.
Back in 2005, when Putin put Medvedev in charge of several major programs to fix the ailing education, health and other national services, he described excessive bureaucracy as the main obstacle. Asked at a press conference how he thought this could be dealt with, he said, “To fight in the way that all countries fight against bureaucracy, that is by concentrating administrative resources on solving priority tasks that face the country and those tasks the citizens of the Russian Federation are waiting to see resolved. For this very reason Dmitry Anatolevich Medvedev has been delegated to the Government.” It’s worth noting, however, that Medvedev wasn’t terribly successful in this assignment.
More importantly, where Putin is in charge, secrecy prevails, with all important policy debate conducted behind closed doors, with decisions announced in stentorian terms after a minimum of trailing, often via intentionally false speculation by spin doctors. With such a “modus” now extending downwards into ministerial offices, it is hardly likely that governance is set to grow more open.
But what about Medvedev? His public persona of pleasantness to the point of banality has led some to imagine signs of liberalism and modernity. Wishful thinking. Elected entirely on the basis of Putin’s endorsement, Medvedev’s authority is in fact Putin’s â€“ and both know it. The precise architecture of power will start to become clearer over the coming weeks, as Putin â€“ more likely than Medevedev â€“ reveals more about the shape of his government. But if there were a betting market available on whether much of substance will change under the new Russian president â€“ there isn’t by the way â€“ you’d do well to put your money on no change at all.
The author is a Russia & Eastern Europe specialist working in public relations and is a former international correspondent.