The Power Struggle Between Putin and Medvedev

Russia has a parliamentary presidency where a prime minister, appointed by an elected president, is charged with running the cabinet.  This month, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has come into open conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  It appears that as the Putin economy slides back into recession, Putin is falling back on Stalin-like tactics to purge any possibly disloyal minions. This bodes ill for Russia’s future.

A little background to start with:  Putin became president after serving for a brief period as Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister. Yeltsin resigned as his two-term limit approached, making Putin president by operation of law so Putin could run as an incumbent.  Putin served two terms and then had to step down himself.  He designated then-prime minister Medvedev as his successor, but then after Medvedev had served one term Putin returned to office. Russian term limits only prevent more than two consecutive terms as president, but a president can leave office and return as many times as he likes without offending the Russian constitution.

In 2011, when Medvedev was wearing the presidential hat, he abolished a Russian law that permitted law enforcement officers to initiate tax fraud cases without the approval of the Russian tax ministry.  In other words, they had to at least pretend to have some real evidence before doing so. On November 12th, Medvedev openly criticized Putin for announcing he would bring the law back into force.  Medvedev warned:  “Absolutely anything could be cooked up, especially when ordered and paid for, which frequently happens when one structure is fighting with another.”

By “structure” Medvedev was referring to the numerous oligarchical clans that control Russia’s wealth and fight over its disposition, in the style of La Cosa Nostra, with the president as the Godfather-in-Chief.  And in particular, he meant the structures that are or might be hostile to him.

Two days later, Putin fired back. He ominously intoned: “I’ll see the one who’s talking about this matter.  My colleagues and I will talk, we’ll sort it out. But the problem here can be solved very simply: I will have to remind them that there are routines for resolving questions before going out into the media.”  He added, just to make sure he’d left no doubt, that those “who do not agree with something” could “go and join the expert community” and “get out” of his government.

One week after that, Putin showed he was not limiting himself to verbal swordplay with Medvedev:  He actually began physically pushing him out of government.  Putin convened a special economic counsel to address Russia’s looming economic stagnation, and he excluded Medvedev from the meeting.  Instead, Putin invited former finance minister Alexei Kudrin to attend, and permitted Kudrin to put it out there that there was no certainty of Medvedev ever being on the guest list.

Kudrin was the very person Putin was referring to when he mentioned leaving the regime and joining the “expert community,” because that’s what Kudrin did when he and Medvedev quarreled in September 2011.  If you think of Medvedev as the token voice of pseudo-democracy in Putin’s regime, you could see Kudrin as his rival for that spot. It was a breathtaking slight to the PM.

This fracas led to Russian media assembling a comprehensive list of the tactics Putin has already begun to apply in order to emasculate Medvedev and indeed the very office of prime minister itself, consolidating all power in his own hands. Putin is systematically purging Medvedev’s allies from government, marginalizing Medvedev’s legislative initiatives (including the much-ballyhooed Skolkovo technology center that was supposed to be Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley), and has even supported the development of documentary films attacking Medvedev’s competence.