So to start off this renewal of the blog, why not a topic that I have covered before? In fact, why not a topic on which I had already started writing a post back in 2008, and just never finished it? Obviously, a lot has changed in Russia (or has it?) since 2008, so I have updated the original draft. Surprisingly, much of what I had written is still true today. I have also added new information, so don’t worry about that!
There are three major differences between today’s world and East-West relations (read Russia-West relations) between now and the Cold War. The ideological war between capitalism and communism is long-gone, Moscow’s far flung influence has been severely diminished, and the West is so preoccupied with itself today that it sometimes doesn’t even notice the rest of the world exists. One thing, however, that has much remained the same is the ambiguity of who exactly is in control in the Kremlin.
President Putin holds the presidency, of course. Prime Minister Medvedev controls the Duma (and has growing support within political circles, if Russian political analysts are to be trusted). But who, exactly, is running the show? The answer, I think, is that the competing circles of power in Russia still have too much independence, even after Putin’s clampdown during his first presidency on sources of local political power. Aside from Medvedev’s fairly well known contradictions to the official Putin line, the Russian military also seems to often have a different line than the official Putin one. Time and again Russian generals have made statements on the Georgian war, the US missile shield, NATO and EU expansion, Kosovo’s independence, etc. that seemingly contradict press releases from the Kremlin. So, either the Kremlin lies pathologically (and I for one, can’t at all picture Medvedev or Putin misleading the West of their intentions), or there simply is a (deliberate) miss-communication on how much independence in talking to the press the military is supposed to have. Or perhaps Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has his own agenda aside from Putin and Medvedev.
Some of these examples may seem old and outdated. It’s worth noting, however, that the political circles within Russia have not changed much in the past 13 years. So, even, if the current political alliances are somewhat different, knowing a bit of history does not hurt. In any case, many Western observers have long thought that Medvedev and Putin often bump heads with regards to Russia’s future, and perhaps, with regards to who should hold the ultimate power in Russian politics. Medvedev stands for a more modern, democratic and less corrupt Russia above all else. Putin stands for a strong, united and powerful Russia above all else. One can argue that their goals complement each other. And they do, to a certain extent. However, how does Russia benefit from a refocus on its military at this particular moment? Can’t the funds be used to renovate the highway network, which has been unkempt and fallen into disrepair in certain parts of the country? On the flip side of the coin, how can a more democratic Russia possibly be a more unified Russia?
These questions are by no means unique to Russia. They’re valid questions for every country out there. The reason that Russia warrants a closer look is that it is so damn important. Russia has, for all intents and purposes, one of the two most important nations on this planet for the past 70 years. A large country, bursting with natural resources and a proud people, Russia is the only nation besides the United States that is capable of projecting its power and economic interests across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Lately, we have seen exactly how Russia still holds more influence than China, for example. Russia is the foreign key player, along with the United States, in the Syrian crisis. No important steps will be taken without Russian approval. Of course Russia is significantly weaker than the United States, and can’t project as much political influence over other countries now. But don’t count them out just yet.
In any case, let’s get back to current developments. Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s right hand men, seems to have recently fallen squarely into Medvedev’s camp. Surkov was often labeled as Russia’s 3rd most powerful man after Putin and Medvedev. He was called the grey cardinal who developed Russia’s current political system, and helped to orchestrate the creation of various pro-Kremlin parties. Putin can’t have him throwing his lot behind the prime minister. He can’t have the competing power circle become too powerful. So, he orchestrated Surkov’s resignation. Officialy, Surkov resigned because he was unable to carry out his duties as Deputy Prime Minister, such as ensuring Skolkovo’s growth. Skolkovo is a suburb of Moscow and is supposed to be Russia’s Silicon Valley. Instead of being in the news for high-tech startups, though, it has been been in the news for suspected embezzlement of funds by officials. So, maybe, there is a slight chance that he has indeed resigned because he was simply unable to carry out his duties of creating a modern innovation hub. But I doubt it. I put it at a 10% chance at best.
Why doesn’t Putin just get rid of Medvedev as well, then? Well, he might. Certain signs seem to point toward that happening during the next elections. However, I think Putin needs Medvedev. Not only is he handy to have around when putting on a good face for the outside world, he is handy internally as well. Medvedev lends a (perhaps diminishing) credibility to Putin’s regime to Russia’s city dwellers and intelligentsia. Last, but not least, Medvedev might actually be able to do something about modernizing Russia’s economy and clamping down on corruption, which would definitely be good for Putin’s image.
Don’t count out Surkov just yet. He’ll probably reappear somewhere soon, probably in one of the pro-Kremlin political parties that he is so fond of. That’s why I think that Surkov’s resignation is just one more step to what has become a familiar dance in Russia. Keep the status quo at the top levels of Russian government and hope that the country eventually reaches its perceived deserved global importance.