Cablegate: Medvedev's Address and Tandem Politics

Published: Wed 19 Nov 2008 06:06 AM
DE RUEHMO #3343/01 3240643
P 190643Z NOV 08
Wednesday, 19 November 2008, 06:43
C O N F I D E N T I A L MOSCOW 003343
EO 12958 DECL: 08/15/2017
Classified By: DCM Eric Rubin. Reason: 1.4 (d).
1. (C) Summary. Medvedev’s address to the Federal Assembly last week provided a prism for viewing the power relationship in the Medvedev-Putin tandem, refracting opinion amongst our contacts into three, very divergent, camps. The first group views Medvedev as ascendant, slowly accruing power as he plays to his strengths managing the economic crisis. The second, more skeptical, group argues that Medvedev continues to play Robin to Putin’s Batman, surrounded by a team loyal to the Premier and checked by Putin’s dominance over the legislature and regional elites. Adherents to the third group see no essential difference between Putin and Medvedev, taking at face value the tandem’s unanimity in purpose and vision. All are hindered by the impenetrable nature of Kremlin politics and the fertile field of speculation and rumor that the information vacuum creates. Putin’s address to United Russia on November 20, which will be televised on Channel 1, could provide an opportunity to make a more definitive judgement on the balance of forces within the tandem. End Summary.
Medvedev’s Fans
2. (C) Medvedev’s public bravura as the “commander-in-chief” during the Georgia war and his proactive approach to the darkening economic picture have led some of our contacts to see the president coming into his own in recent months. Aleksey Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information, told us that Medvedev’s address demonstrated how far the president has come, learning from his predecessor the art of balancing the contradictory elite impulses and interests. Mukhin was not surprised by the strong language directed at the U.S., since Medvedev’s rhetoric has toughened since August. Yet, Mukhin saw the aggressive language primarily as a sop to Putin and the hard-liners before Medvedev moved on to his reform agenda. Extending the presidential term will provide Medvedev the possibility of 10 years in power -- enough time for him (or his successor) to implement lasting reform. Mukhin explained that the main thrust of the political reforms is to compel regional leaders to establish closer contact with local assemblies and with voters. He sees this as a first step in Medvedev’s plan to build his own constituency within United Russia and the regional elite as the basis for a re-election run in 2012.
3. (C) Mark Urnov of the Higher School of Economics viewed Putin as the principal decision maker, but one who is under increasing pressure owing to the financial crisis. Urnov largely dismissed Medvedev’s address as a “PR effort” to demonstrate to a domestic audience that he could deliver a strong speech on foreign policy and security issues. Like Mukhin, Urnov argued that the elements of political reform bear closer examination as Medvedev’s first steps in creating his own team. The president’s anti-corruption agenda provided a signal to the elite that he has the will and power to target their economic interests. Urnov expects him to use this selectively to begin to remove people in ministries (deputy ministers and above) as well as some regional leaders and to replace them with “his people.”
4. (C) Urnov told us that Medvedev’s tough rhetoric toward the U.S. was dictated equally by his poor standing in the eyes of the military and by the inability of Putin and his closest advisors to deal with the stresses of the economic downturn. As for the former, Urnov said that recent surveys of military officers -- which are being kept quiet -- indicate the absolute abysmal regard with which the military holds Medvedev. Promises of increased funding will have to be scaled back, leaving Medvedev to turn to words about the importance of the military in protecting Russian interests and belittling the U.S. as acting irresponsibly. On the second point, Putin (and indirectly Medvedev) do not understand how to function politically in an economic crisis. They understand how to exploit the good times to their advantage, but not how to lead and survive in the bad. Urnov noted that rhetoric is only going to get them so far, especially now after the U.S. elections as the Obama victory and a change of administrations makes it much harder for them to put blame on Washington for Russia’s travails.
Putin’s the Man
5. (C) Other contacts are less generous toward Medvedev, considering him an instrument of Putin’s power rather than an independent player. A review of Medvedev’s address by the business paper Vedemosti argued that many of the proposed “liberal reforms,” such as having the majority party recommend gubernatorial candidates and making the government answerable to the Duma on some issues, would strengthen the Putin-led United Russia -- indicating that his agenda continues to shape the tandem policy line. Likewise, press reporting pointed out that the other proposals, such as giving 1-2 seats to minority parties that garner 5-7 percent of the vote and measures to ease the registration of parties, would have made no difference in the past election and are unlikely to signal a broadening of political pluralism. In short, those analysts saw Medvedev’s reform agenda strengthening Putin and his position, despite the democratic rhetoric in the address.
6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX cited the Stalinist credo “cadres decide everything” as justification for dismissing Medvedev as a real contender (indeed, XXXXXXXXXXXX sees the president as the number 3 guy, behind Putin and Deputy Premier Igor Sechin). In his formulation, Putin remains the main arbiter of elite conflict and continues to balance the two, unequal factions against each other. For opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, whose SPS party was bought out by the Kremlin, Medvedev remains the Lilliputian to Putin’s commander-in-chief. Insecurity and lack of legitimacy would drive a Putinesque policy, but Nemtsov stressed that it was Putin who pulled all the strings.
Two Peas in a Pod
7. (C) Other contacts commented that a search for evidence of dissonance between the two leaders is either the forlorn hope of Western-leaning liberals for a political thaw or a legacy of “Kremlinology” that presupposes inter-leadership conflict as the sine qua non of Russian politics. Perhaps more important, they point to the unity of message between Putin and Medvedev on the most important issues: the revival of Russia’s role as a great power, the need for combating corruption within the system, and the goal of improving the quality of life for everyday Russians. U.S. resident, but United Russia-connected analyst Nikolay Zlobin concluded to us that the “tandem works.” No one outside Medvedev and Putin were privy to the codicils of this political arrangement, but the lack of transparency, he maintained, did not mean a lack of political efficiency.
8. (C) Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies is representative of the “tandem as team” camp and sees little reason to read the tea leaves for signs of a split. She pointed to Medvedev’s address as the contradictory medley of a “Putin line” seeking to strengthen the state and a “Medvedev” impulse to scale back state involvement. Both the Kremlin and the White House approved the message, and the final product reflected coordination and compromise between the two leaders. Stanovaya underscored that those aspects attributed to Putin, particularly the proposal to extend the presidential term to 6 years, will have an immediate impact, while those considered more “Medvedian” -- lowering the barriers for smaller parties, for example -- will only have significance further down the road. Perhaps most important, Stanovaya emphasized that all of the elements of the address, like all other aspects of policy, enjoyed at least some support from both sides of the tandem, or they would not have been introduced.
Constitutional Changes
9. (C) The most controversial moment of Medvedev’s address was his proposal to extend the presidential term to 6 years, and that for Duma members to 5 years. The press was, and remains, rife with rumors that the constitutional change is designed to create the conditions for a Putin return to the presidency, either by Medvedev’s resignation or through a snap election, brought about by the change itself. Other rumors, including comments by Communist party leader Zyuganov consider the proposed amendment to be a “graceful” way for Putin to leave his post as Premier, before the economy collapses, requiring a new round of Duma elections and the resultant dismissal of the current government. The haste in which the administration is moving forward -- the Duma may accomplish the required three readings and vote its approval by November 21, and there are no apparent obstacles to having regional parliaments ratify the change -- has served to heighten speculation about the reasons behind what would be the first amendment to the 15-year old constitution.
10. (C) Most of our contacts saw the term limit issue in terms of the tandem’s longer-term agenda, rather than a short-term plan to shake up the leadership. Stanovaya reminded us that Putin had raised the idea of extending term limits when he was president, but he did not want to lose face with the West or his own society by adapting the constitution. Now that Putin’s successor has come to power, she argued, the time has come to make the changes. Urnov sees the pressures of the looming economic crisis driving the timing of Medvedev’s proposal. He noted that the constitutional change did not need to be included in Medvedev’s address -- indeed, initial drafts did not include it. The decision to go forward now was dictated completely by politics: Putin and Medvedev see that their approval ratings dropping somewhat, and they fear how far they might go. Urnov believes that the tandem decided that is better to use whatever political momentum they still have due to the Georgia conflict to push through the constitutional change now.
11. (C) Few of our contacts gave any credit to rumors about Putin leaving his office. XXXXXXXXXXXX quipped that “Putin is not Ghandi -- having succeeded in achieving major political goals, he would not be content to become the spiritual leader of his party.” XXXXXXXXXXXX said that Putin knows he will expose his loyal team to risk, including removal from power, loss of fortune, and even imprisonment if he were to leave the scene. Mukhin also dismissed rumors about a possible Putin resignation, which would represent the abandonment of all that he has built up to this point. He argued that Putin recognizes that his resignation would signal a real clash between the elite clans and likely lead to political, economic, and even social instability. Moreover, there are plenty of scapegoats for Putin to blame if the economic downturn deepens substantially. Zlobin, however, saw the constitutional amendments strengthening the party’s oversight of the governors as a preliminary step for preparing Putin’s shift to head United Russia on a daily basis, without the responsibility for managing a sinking economy.
Where You Sit is Where You Stand
12. (C) Broadly speaking, analysis of the tandem reflects the political orientation of the analyst. As noted in earlier reporting, our contacts from the “liberal democratic” camp are dismissive of any proposals from the tandem government, seeing the proposals as further undermining the structure of Russian democracy (Reftel). “Establishment liberals,” like Mukhin and Urnov, are inclined to place greater emphasis on ideas, looking at Medvedev’s progressive rhetoric as a sign of possible change and ultimately a growing challenge to Putin’s statist inclinations. Less ideological analysts focus more on systematic factors and tend emphasize Putin’s overwhelming advantage in public opinion, control over cadres policy, and standing as United Russia head as largely precluding a Medvedev ascension. Indeed, these “systemic” analysts downplay competition within the tandem as contradicting the very framework of the power arrangement.
13. (C) The opacity of Kremlin politics and the conspiratorial leanings of Russia’s political commentary have created fertile ground for a wide range of speculation and have impaired the emergence of a more broad-based consensus on the tandem’s future course. Deeping economic troubles, however, are certain to challenge the tandem and could create new pressures on the unity of leadership. Putin’s speech to United Russia’s conference on November 20 -- which in an unprecedented display of the strengthened stature of the Premier’s position will be televised to the nation -- provides an opportunity to analyze the differences between, or perhaps unaminity among, the two leaders. We will be watching closely to see if Putin uses the public rostrum to paint a different picture of events or to demonstrate a competing agenda to that outlined in Medvedev’s address and will follow up with additional reporting.
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