Here’s the first of a new weekly podcast covering Eurasian politics, society, and history.
Christopher Miller, Mashable‘s Senior Correspondent covering world news, particularly the post-Soviet space and especially Ukraine. You can read Chris’ reporting from Ukraine here.
Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is also the co-author with Clifford Gaddy of the recently released second edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.
You can read my review of Mr. Putin here.
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Two days and counting before Dmitri Medvedev can lose the “elect” that sits after of his moniker President. The ceremony promises to be lavish and well choreographed. And why not? You can’t have a king without a coronation. But the question on everyone’s mind is not what Dima will do in his new position. It’s who’s in charge. Perhaps for once Russian and English language media are singing in chorus. Putin will be in charge. It’s just not clear how much.
One area VVP will certainly have sway is over the next cabinet. For the first time in a long time, the Russian Prime Minister, in this case Putin, will exercise his Constitutional right to form a government. According to Kommersant, the new government will probably look a lot like the old. Viktor Zubkov, Alexander Zhukov, Alexei Kudrin, all current vice premiers, will join the cabinet. As will Igor Sechin, Alexei Gromov, and Sergei Ivanov. Chief ideologist of Putinism, Vladislav Surkov will run Medvedev’s administration. These are all members of Putin’s clan. To solidify Putin bailiwick, there is speculation that Chapter 5, Article 32 of the 1997 law “On the Government of the Russian Federation” will be axed. Eliminating this article will strip the President’s power to appoint the heads of the military and foreign ministries.
Perhaps most important, especially if Medvedev intends to someday step out of his patron’s shadow, is that Putin’s appointments will give him a tight leash over the siloviki.
But what of Medvedev? How will he staff his administration? What does he intend to do? Few are asking because no one seems to know or really care. Nor is there any indication that Dima will spring any surprises. Besides pithy statements about fighting corruption and economic liberalization, it sounds that Dima’s role is to hold the ship steady, and remain, at least for the time being, the Skipper’s little buddy.
Honestly, how could it be anything different? Putin is the face of Russia in politics, kitsch, and culture. If Medvedev stepped into office and started shouting directions without a political base of his own, the siloviki would eat him alive. Plus, its not like Russian elite cares much. Apparently, they are too busy gorging themselves on the fat of the land to be concerned about the inner workings of Kremlin Inc.
Indeed, all seems right with the world if you’re looking out from a Kremlin window. But some refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. For them, Russia is eternally standing on the precipice of disaster. “I think one thing is dead clear. We have entered a period of profound instability in the country.” says Yevgenia Albats. In her view, “the double-headed state will inevitably lead to power struggles.”
Maybe. But that could ultimately be a good thing. Diarchy is better than nothing. Certainly better than autocracy.
“Today we are successful in politics, economics, the arts, sciences, sports. We have reasons for pride. We enjoy respect and difference. We are citizens of a great country and we have great victories ahead. Putin’s plan is a victory for Russia.”
“Why are we certain in the stable development of Russia? Because Russia today has a growing economy and new technologies. Russia’s high global standing and order at home, priority national projects and an up to date military-industrial complex, are because today our leader is bringing us new victories. We are working for one common cause. United Russia. We believe in Russia, we believe in ourselves!”
Such is the text of the two United Russia campaign commercials above. They are slick, exciting, and most importantly positive and optimistic. No political opponent is mentioned. There are no campaign smears. Nor is there any indication of what United Russia specifically stands for, except for Russia itself.
United Russia’s message to voters is a simple one. The future is bright and tomorrow will be brighter. Russia has one task–progress, and United Russia, under Putin’s plan, is the only political force to ensure it.
It’s all quite genius, really. Where the Communists and liberals preach a language of decay, corruption, and negativity, United Russia’s commercials’ tap into the emotional centers of pride; the music makes you want to leap up in celebration; and by their end, the viewer, if not already totally ensconced in cynicism, can’t help mobilize the self for what tomorrow will bring. Those looking for objectivity need apply elsewhere. For, United Russia’s proactive imagery seeks to be more than an ad, more than mere propaganda. It seeks to be a dose of Ecstacy for the dejected and depressed voter.
The commercials’ message is a throwback to the progressive rhetorics of the Soviet times. “Life has become more joyous comrades,” Stalin was famous for saying. And why not? Life actually has, discovers the Washington Post. The Post’s subject, one Vadim Ignatiyev from Nizhny Novgorod, is an archetype of the United Russia supporter–middle-aged provincial Russian family man, a full fledged member of Russia petite-bourgeoisie. Decent wages (they’ve doubled in the past two years), a new car, new TV, CD player, and furniture. A package vacation to Turkey. His family’s first abroad. All attributed to Putin. “I believe the president has given people the possibility to work and to make money,” Ignatiyev told the Post. “If five years ago I might have had some doubts about him, now I have none. I don’t see any alternative.”
At that is exactly what United Russia’s campaign commercials hope to say to Ignatiyev: the reason he sees no alternative is because there is none.
(Top down, left to right: Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister; Viktor Zubkov, First Vice-Prime Minister; Igor Shubalov, First Vice-Prime Minister; Igor Sechin, Vice-Prime Minister; Sergei Sobyanin, Vice-Prime Minister; Sergei Ivanov, Vice-Prime Minister; Aleksei Kurdrin, Vice-Prime Minister; Aleksandr Zhukov, Vice-Prime Minister; Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister; Rashid Nuraliev, Minister of Internal Affairs; Aleksei Kudrin, MInister of Finance; Sergei Shoigy, Minister of Public Safety; Dmitri Kozak, Minister of Regional Development; Tatiana Golkova, Minister of Health and Social Development; Elvira Nabiullina, Minister of Economic Development; Anatolii Serdiukov, Minister of Defense; Igor Shchegolev, Minister of Communications; Andrei Fursenko, Minister of Education; Iurii Trutnev, Minister of Natural Resources; Aleksei Gordeev, Minister of Agriculture; Sergei Shmatko, Minister of Energy; Viktor Khistenko, Minister of Industry, Vitalii Mutko, Minister of Sport; Aleksandr Avdeev, Minister of Culture; Igor Levitin, Minister of Transportation; and Aleksandr Konovalov, Minister of Justice.)
Things to note are:
Putin basically brought his tail from the Kremlin into the White House. The top faces should be familiar to anyone paying attention. The number of Vice Prime Ministers was raised from five to seven. Shubalov’s promotion and Kurdin’s double role as Finance Minister and Vice-Premier is being viewed as a liberal bulwark to hawkish Sechin and Ivanov. Dmitri Babich notes that all seven men owe their careers to Putin and four of them (Ivanov, Sechin, Zubkov and Shuvalov) are his personal friends.
Two big figures in the “siloviki war” Vikor Cherkesov and Nikolai Patrushev have been removed from their respective positions as the head of the Federal Drug Control Service and the FSB. The former will now head the federal agency for buying military hardware. The latter will become the head of Medvedev’s Security Council.
The Moscow Times sees this shuffle as an overall blow to the siloviki. So does Yevgenia Albats, who told the Indepdenent‘s Shaun Walker that “The appointments suggest that the warriors have lost and the traders have won.”
Despite the fact that the government looks stable, Jonas Bernstein evaluates the expectation that the Medvedev-Putin tandem will at some point collapse.
The New York Times’ C. J. Chivers predictably sees the appointments as yet another move to “retain a grip on power and the direction of policy in Russia.” Like the Moscow Times he makes much of the fact that Putin sat in the same seat as he did as President, while Medvedev sat in a seat “viewers have come to regard as one for subordinates.” Reuters is also making much of the chair. Lyndon over at Scraps of Moscow simply calls the chair thing “stability.”
Equally predictable, RFE/RL sees the cabinet with so many familiar faces as the “preservation of power.” Wasn’t that the point all along?
Not all are winners though. Sergei Ivanov, who was once a presidential hopeful was demoted from a First Vice Primer to a simple Vice Premier. Communications Minister Leonid Reiman and Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov have to hit the pavement and find new jobs. I doubt the revolving door between the Russian government and Russian corporations will make job hunting difficult.
Medvedev has appointed former Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin to be his chief of staff. He also promoted Head Putin ideologist Vladislav Surkov to first deputy chief of staff and elevated another Putinite, Alexei Gromov, to be deputy chief of staff.
Few new faces were brought into the Putin’s government or Medvedev’s administration. For the most part things look like they did before. Economic liberals are balanced with security minded conservatives.
I don’t imagine any major conflicts, or at least no more than usual among the elite. The board of Kremlin Inc. is continuing with business as usual. Let the plundering resume!