It was supposed to be the stitch-up to end all stitch-ups. On Saturday Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, and Dmitry Medvedev, president since 2008, announced in front of a loudly cheering audience of the ruling United Russia party that they were once more switching jobs next year.
“I want to say directly: an agreement over what to do in the future was reached between us several years ago,” Mr Putin told the crowd, while Mr Medvedev too said the pact had been agreed back in 2007 when he was prime minister and Mr Putin backed him as his successor for the presidency. “We actually discussed this variant of events while we were first forming our comradely alliance,” proclaimed Mr Medvedev.
It was the epitome of politics by conspiracy perfected by Mr Putin in more than a decade in power, intended both to end three-and-a-half years of intrigue that had gripped Russia about Mr Putin’s political plans and to demonstrate that the omnipotent Kremlin political machine was impervious to rivalry, jealousy, competition and scandal.
But what happened next proved precisely the opposite: since the weekend, Russia has been gripped by a political crisis after a number of government officials in effect mutinied, refusing to play along to the script that had been presented to them as a fait accompli. What they aired was a feeling of betrayal by the backroom deal of which they had not been informed.
Monday’s sacking as finance minister of Alexei Kudrin, who had served 12 years in the post and is one of Mr Putin’s oldest friends from St Petersburg, was the first and possibly not the last head to roll in what has become a hefty political brawl.
On learning of the deal, Mr Kudrin had questioned Mr Medvedev’s competence in economic matters and summarily announced his refusal to serve in his cabinet – probably because he had had his own eye on the prime ministership.
On Tuesday, the rogue ex-minister aired his grievances in a way deeply unhelpful to the central bank, which has spent at least $6bn in the past week propping up the rouble in the midst of global market turmoil. As he lashed out at the pressure from above, which, he said, had forced him to approve increases in state spending, particularly on the military – budgetary miscalculations would “inevitably spread to the entire national economy”, he warned – the political infighting only exacerbated the pressure on the currency.
It was an unheard-of public brawl between two members of Mr Putin’s famously tight-lipped political team, who have long kept their internal fights to themselves. In 2007, for example, Mr Kudrin said almost nothing in public when Sergei Storchak, his deputy, was arrested and charged with embezzlement in a heavily politicised case.
This case, according to a consensus within the government, was ordered by a rival Kremlin official, also from the Putin circle. But the matter was settled behind closed doors and the charges against Mr Storchak were dropped this year.
Such opacity has become typical under the Kremlin’s rules of managed democracy. Political parties are invented; television stations censored (Mr Kudrin’s face has not been seen on national TV since Saturday); decisions are taken by fiat but then legitimised by an army of pollsters, spin-doctors and broadcasters who sell these as democratic choices.
Russians have become consumers of politics in the same way that they are consumers of cosmetics or electronic goods – their opinions registered through tireless market research and sales data but with no formal way to influence the process through a meaningful vote. The Kremlin has used such “political technology” for more than a decade to provide a veneer of democracy for an authoritarian system.
But this week’s fireworks indicate that conspiracy as a governing tool is becoming untenable. Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to drain all the spontaneity and competition from public politics, it just as stubbornly refuses to go away.
“The system of management of politics is exhausted, it’s morally worn out. The situation has changed and it doesn’t work any more,” says Gleb Pavlovksy, who heads the Fund for Effective Politics, a Moscow think-tank, and is a former political consultant to the Kremlin.
Mr Kudrin was not the only rebel. Igor Yurgens, a Medvedev economic adviser, told the Financial Times he was “disappointed” by the decision. Arkady Dvorkovich, a key aide to Mr Medvedev on the economy, also registered his displeasure in a mild way, posting on Twitter that “there is no cause for celebration” in the announcement that Mr Putin was to return to the top job. He later tweeted that Luzhniki stadium, where the speech was held, “is better used for playing hockey”.
The disgust of the Medvedev team with the voluntary humiliation of their patron by Mr Putin was palpable.
“There are two teams: Medvedev’s team and Putin’s team,” says Vladimir Pribylovsky, editor of the political website anticompromat.org, retelling a variation of a joke that has made the rounds in Moscow. “But it’s not clear whose team Medvedev is on.
“Well, we found out that he is actually on Putin’s team.”
Political transitions in Russia have in some sense always been conspiracies – some more successful than others. The death of communism happened amid the foul-ups of the failed 1991 coup by hardline generals; the upset 1996 presidential re-election win by Boris Yeltsin was stage-managed by seven oligarchs. Most successful was the rise of Mr Putin himself to replace Yeltsin in 1999. Indeed, the man who wrote Yeltsin’s resignation speech on New Year’s eve 1999, who wishes to remain anonymous, says only six or seven people knew at the time.
Mr Medvedev’s entire presidency (Mr Putin was constitutionally prohibited from a third successive term) now appears to have been an elaborately constructed play, whose final act was the return of the former KGB colonel to his job next March.
But in its refusal to swallow yet another fait accompli, Russia’s political aristocracy is demonstrating that its patience for paternalistic rule is ebbing – and, simultaneously, the Kremlin appears to be losing its touch.
For instance, the deal presented by both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev as having been agreed “years ago” may have instead been recent and hastily constructed.
According to one official, it was pushed for by Mr Medvedev, while Mr Putin wanted it delayed until after parliamentary elections.
“It wasn’t great politically – now how are we going to get anyone to vote in the parliamentary elections if we’ve told them we’ve already decided everything?” he adds.
Another official speculates that Mr Kudrin’s prime ministerial ambitions were well known at the time and Mr Medvedev wanted to make clear he had been tapped for the post before Mr Putin could back out of the deal they had made. According to a consensus of officials and analysts, the two men decided on the succession not in 2007 but just this August.
The presentation of the plan was botched. The speeches “sounded like they were written in the car on the way over”, says one government official. Telling the nation that the pact had been made long ago was a big mistake, says a former high-ranking Kremlin official.
“It is a very bad explanation because, first of all, it’s a lie. And second of all, it doesn’t explain anything.”
Whatever the background, the announcement clearly did not go down well except among the party faithful at Saturday’s rally. Nor was the displeasure confined to those in the Medvedev and Putin political teams.
On Monday, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular and largely apolitical Moscow tabloid, took aim at the “tandem” in an editorial.
“Russia consists not only of government bureaucrats, not only of those who have a pass to Luzhniki stadium,” the article read.
“And everyone whose consciousness has not been demolished by ecstatic glee [over Mr Putin’s return] has understood that you have lied to us for four years.” Russia, it continued, “has just received a lesson in unbridled cynicism”.
In a country where resignations and reshuffles are usually choreographed with care, Mr Kudrin’s abrupt departure was already the second political scandal to erupt in a month. On September 15, Right Cause – a pro-Kremlin party of economic liberals and democrats aimed at emerging middle-class voters – self-destructed after Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest man in Russia and the party’s leader, was expelled in a furious public row.
Brought in to lead what was widely thought to be a Kremlin project, Mr Prokhorov blamed his expulsion on a row with Vladislav Surkov, chief of the Kremlin’s domestic political operations, whom he labelled a “puppet master”.
However, the ensuing scandal made it clear that patience with such managed democracy is running out. Mr Prokhorov himself said on his blog on Tuesday, commenting on the week’s upheavals: “I think that we stand on the verge of a very important – possibly tectonic – shift in the consciousness of the elite, including the ruling elite. There is polarisation. It will inevitably bring to the surface new ideologies, new conceptions of development and new people.”
Few reckon Mr Putin is in any political danger but the scandals this month, according to some analysts, indicated that he may be under considerable pressure to liberalise – which was formerly a no-go area for the stern ex-KGB colonel. In power, Mr Putin has shown himself to be (mainly) an economic liberal but a political autocrat, who strangled the media and clearly feared giving up the state’s implicit veto over the political process.
But the Russia he will take over in 2012 is not the same Russia, sick of the chaos of democratic transition, that welcomed a strong hand in 2000 when he first came to power. Today the country is richer, more middle-class and less patient than it was a decade ago, according to an increasing amount of sociological research.
Few can predict what Mr Putin’s third term as president will bring. But if he is wise, says one former senior official, he will have to “show everyone that he is not what they think he is”.
The middle class: a potential headache for Putin
Vedomosti, a Russian newspaper part-owned by the Financial Times, recently ran an online quiz that was an instant hit. It was called “Are you middle class?”
Respondents were judged by their ability to identify pieces of Ikea furniture, the stamp on a Schengen visa used in parts of the European Union, an iPhone and various types of sushi – all de rigueur accoutrements of a middle-class Moscow lifestyle.
In many ways, this constituency is the most important for Vladimir Putin if he wishes to have an untroubled third or fourth term in power as president. But the group’s political loyalties are famously hard to read – and fickle.
The middle class is a comparatively new phenomenon in post-communist Russia, created during Mr Putin’s first presidency (2000-08) as economic growth soared and real incomes doubled.
Alongside their greater wealth, they crave more of a voice – and are chafing against the authoritarian culture of the Kremlin that excludes them from politics. They could prove to be a headache for Mr Putin if he wishes to rule once again as an unchallenged autocrat.
The Kremlin has recently been keen to build bridges.
It backed Right Cause, a liberal-leaning party headed by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov that sought to mobilise the 15 per cent of voters reckoned to be middle class. The venture flopped, falling apart this month amid scandal.
For Mikhail Dmitriev of the Centre for Strategic Research, a Moscow think-tank, the middle class comprises 40 per cent of the population of Moscow and 20-30 per cent of other urban centres. He says it forms the core of a potential opposition to the Kremlin, which he reckons will soon find itself in a “crisis of legitimacy” if it does not reform.
Other sociologists are less alarmist, saying that divining a coherent middle class is practically impossible. Some work for the state, some are in the private sector; many are intensely nationalistic, others are democrats.
“There is very little you can say about this group as a whole,” argues Larisa Kosova of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, who believes that even the term itself is something of a misnomer. She says the title refers mainly to the category of people whose lifestyles most closely mirror the western middle class. “It consists of the top two deciles of Russian society,” she said. “So in what way is this ‘middle’ class?”
Source: Charles Clover for Financial Times
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