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Russia: Will to power?



(Russian Federation)

An Analytical Review

Volume XVI, Number 13, 27 May 2010




Will to power?

Two years after his inauguration as president, Dmitri Medvedev is finally making a bit of headway with his constituents:  recent polling suggests that an increasing percentage, 22 percent of respondents this month, think Medvedev formulates his presidential policies independently, and nearly 70 percent approve of his presidency.  The poll also finds that his chances at re-election in 2012 are perceived as a mere 3% below the respondents’ assessment of the likelihood of Putin’s return to the presidency.  The difficult news for Team Medvedev is the perception of the workings of the Medvedev-Putin tandem, as approximately 66 percent persist in the view that Medvedev is “under the control” of Putin. (1)


Despite the apparent clear vision among the poll’s respondents, there have been sufficient gaps appearing between the president and prime minister to suggest that what was once a synchronous tandem might have been thrown askew by the demands of personal ambition.  A clear line is traceable from Putin’s unrestrained overreach at the Valdai Conference last summer on the subject of his further presidential ambitions to the current president’s modernization campaign complete with its implicit, and occasionally explicit, attacks on the stable, but static, Putin decade.  It seems clear that among Moscow’s official blue light apparatchiki brigades, there has been a tendency to take sides and perhaps to engage in or encourage competition with the opposing team.   It becomes difficult to disentangle actual conflict between the two diarchical heads of the Russian state from rumored conflicts between Putin’s siloviki and Medvedev’s “liberals.”  The distinction of teams is made more difficult by the fact that, despite the weight of history and experience, analysts continue to identify western-leaning, glasnost’ inspired approaches only with the president and heavy-handed state pressure tactics, including the assertion of state control over previously private assets, solely as the work of the prime minister and his siloviki cohorts.  While the truth of player selection in these cases is nuanced (Putin did, after all, bring different “teams” with him to Moscow, including the liberal economists—as well as lawyer Medvedev—from St. Petersburg, some of whom clearly maintain their loyalty), still the broader picture provides its analytical advantages.  It is unlikely to find siloviki capo, Igor Sechin, for example, making pro-Medvedev moves to the detriment of Putin.


At those times when there appears to be extraordinary strain on the diarchy, the teams are agitated and the apparatchiki enter their field of battle, as evidenced by rumors of personnel shuffles.


Slowly over the last few weeks, the shifts of officials into positions on new modernization program boards, Olympic oversight committees, and investment enticement centers have suggested a fierce, bureaucratic battle behind the scenes.  Lately, rumors have surfaced of a change in the disposition of forces within the government (featuring, for example, siloviki brothers hoping to strip the liberal finance minister of some of his authority),  (2) as members of Team Medvedev pour into more high-profile financial and innovation roles.  The re-emergence of Aleksandr Voloshin, a close Medvedev adviser and one-time mentor, as well as former Yel’tsin “Family” friend, who recently was appointed to head a presidential council on financial markets, suggests a realignment of presidential forces, as if a heavy-hitter was being moved around the line-up to optimize his talents for the team. (3)


Complicating the current situation even more is the new trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is accused of embezzling his company’s profits and oil.  Among the witnesses called for the defense was former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as PM during Vladimir Putin’s administration.  Kasyanov testified to “no violations of the law by Yukos,” and commented that the criminal case against Khodorkovsky was politically motivated and sparked by his support of opposition political parties, including “the Union of Rightist Forces, Yabloko … also the Communists.” (4)


What makes the latest prosecution of Khodorkovsky most interesting, aside from the defendant’s brief hunger strike, launched to focus presidential attention on his case, and also aside from his defense lawyer’s attempts to call Putin as a witness, is the juxtaposition of the main bureaucratic antagonists in the initial case, then serving as Kremlin chief of staff and head of the presidential chancellery.  Their roles now have them as leaders of rival tandem factions.  In 2003, the arrest of Khodorkovsky seemed to signal the ascendance of the siloviki then, as now, led by Igor Sechin; Aleksandr Voloshin resigned his Kremlin office, apparently concerned that his continued presence gave heart to liberal hopes in a Putin presidency (or, perhaps, just gave heart to former “Family” friends).  (5) Now, it seems likely that there will be another round in this apparatchiki battle for the Kremlin. 


According to the opinion polls, a solid majority of Russia’s citizens seems to have fixed their view of the relationship between the heads of their divided executive leadership.  Putin and Medvedev themselves well might have worked out their division of authority.  It seems clear, however, that at least some members of their respective teams still see something worth fighting for…or, perhaps, against.


Source Notes:

(1) “The Kremlin’s Half-Termer,” Kommersant-Vlast, N17-18, 10 May 10, p. 17; What the Papers Say Weekly Review, 17 May 10 via Lexis-Nexis Academic; and  “Russian Poll: Medvedev Still in Putin’s Shadow, 27 May 10 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) via

(2)  “Politics: The government is threatened by a regrouping of forces,” by Elina Bilevskaya, Nezavisimaya gazeta, 12 May 10; BBC Worldwide Monitoring Former Soviet Union, 14 May 10 via Lexis-Nexis Academic.

(3) “Medvedev formalizes appointment of Moscow financial center taskforce head,” RIA Novosti, 18 May 10, 3:34 pm GMT +3 via Lexis-Nexis Academic.

(4) “Ex-PM Kasyanov says Khodorkovsky case absurd, politically motivated,” RIA Novosti, 24 May 10, 3:19 PM GMT +3 via Lexis-Nexis Academic.

(5) “What a shame,” by Susan J. Cavan, The NIS Observed: An Analytical Review, Volume VIII Number 18 (6 November 2003) via


By Susan J. Cavan (



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