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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 24

Era of Dual Rule in Russia

Monday 2 June 2008, by M K Bhadrakumar


On a frIGID EVENING IN February, Russia’s leviathan energy conglomerate, Gazprom, the world’s third largest company by market value, held a lavish 15th birthday bash in Moscow in one of the most hallowed halls within the Kremlin’s ramparts—the towering Palace theatre where the Communist Party of the Soviet Union used to hold its Party Congresses. The centrepiece of the gig on February 11 was a concert by Deep Purple.

Gazprom hired the rock icons for its coming- out party for a single reason—they were the favourites of the company Chairman, Dmitry Medvedev. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, lead singer Ian Gillan sang barefoot. Medvedev said: “This is simply surreal. I started listening to Deep Purple at 13. I never would have imagined meeting the famous group in the Kremlin Palace.”

By then, Medvedev was coasting on the campaign trail as Russia’s favourite presidential candidate. How will the Kremlin look under Medvedev’s leadership? Medvedev and Vladimir Putin come from entirely different backgrounds. Medvedev belongs to the crème de la crème of the Russian intelligentsia—from St. Petersburg—where Putin, too, grew up, on the mean streets of its working-class district. Putin’s favourite pastimes are judo and Alpine skiing, while Medvedev likes to swim or listen to music.

Medvedev is also of a different age-bracket and he belongs to a different generation. Even if they follow the same policies, their style and accent cannot but vary. If analogy is useful, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao might have pursued Deng Xiaoping’s pathbreaking vision in China, but each did it in his distinctive way.

THERE are no clear-cut answers here. There are no precedents. As one of post-Soviet Russia’s leading interpreters of Kremlin politics, Gleb Pavlovsky, pointed out,

The model of power which Putin and Medvedev are testing is new for Russia. Each of the centres of power will have to limit itself and, at the same time, limit the other centre. It is a Russian system of checks and balances, and that’s why it looks so exotic to us.

“Whether it works, we’ll see,” he cautiously added. The issue is not only an untested model of power but also of how the Putin-Medvedev combo will adapt to new roles.

True, from all appearances, Putin and Medvedev have enjoyed a close, trusting 17-year relationship. But what happens if they differ? On March 18, Medvedev inaugurated a new think-tank, the Research Institute of Modern Development, to assist him in studying issues of national development.

Putin has a separate think-tank, the Analysis Centre, which focuses on various aspects of the government’s economic policies. The Kremlin has historically been the seat of authority in Russia. The brooding castle is etched deep in the Russian collective memory. And Putin will no longer work out of the Kremlin. Does it matter? He remains immensely popular, with a public rating close to 80 per cent. The basic distribution of power remains untouched. President Medvedev will remain the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and he will appoint the key Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and the Interior, apart from the chief of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Indeed, Medvedev can summarily fire Putin, the incumbent Prime Minister.

On the other hand, Medvedev lacks a political base of his own, unlike Putin, who leads the United Russia party, which holds over 70 per cent of the seats in the Russian Parliament. And Parliament has the power to amend the Constitution and to impeach the President. Nor does Medvedev have any following unlike Putin—who enjoys strong camaraderie within the erstwhile KGB clan—in the country’s powerful security establishment.

When it comes to policy, the President determines Russia’s foreign policy. In modern Russian history, on one occasion at least, a Kremlin chief—Leonid Brezhnev—used his control over foreign policy to boost his international legitimacy and thereby gain the leverage to dominate his otherwise more influential peer group. Like Medvedev, Brezhnev too had a “soft” personality. He liked fast cars, beautiful women, choicest wines—the good things of life. But once he established himself, he went on and on, and disproved all who thought the good-looking dandy was a pushover.

To be sure, Medvedev will, over time, become his own man. The real question is: what does that entail? Of course, Medvedev will continue Putin’s search for good relations with the West, which is also the preference of the ruling class. But the probability is that he will meet the same fate as Putin. He too will realise that the pursuit of Russia’s national interests is hard to be reconciled with improved relations with the West. Russia-US relations are at their worst point in the past 20-year period, involving conflicts potentially as serious as during the Cold War—Georgia, Ukraine, Iran, Venezuela, NATO expansion, missile defence, etc. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Putin frequently consulted on foreign policy, Russian-American relations presage a new Cold War. Russia rejects the US’ triumphalist narrative about the end of the Cold War and the “winner-takes-all” approach that it implies, namely, that the West has a right to oversee Russia’s post-communist political and economic transition and, second, that Moscow should yield to the US’ international interests.

THE Russian scholar, Stephen Cohen, Professor emeritus at Princeton University, wrote last week:

US behaviour was bound to produce a Russian backlash. It came under Putin, but it would have been the reaction of any strong Russian leader… US policies—widely viewed in Moscow as an ‘encirclement’ designed to keep Russia weak and to control its resources—have helped revive an aggressive nationalism (and) destroy the once-strong pro-American lobby.

Cohen advocates three initiatives. One, US diplomacy should respect Russia’s sovereignty and its legitimate national interests; two, call off NATO’s further expansion; and three, resume arms control talks, including over missile defence.

But none of these initiatives is on the cards. Instead, both leading US presidential hopefuls— John McCain and Barack Obama—have promised a “tougher” line on the Kremlin and to continue the encirclement of Russia. In other words, as American and NATO military power increasingly concentrates on Russia’s borders, Medvedev would be unlikely to do anything that may be seen as capitulating to the West.

Medvedev’s first major public event since being sworn into office was a ceremony in Moscow on May 9 to mark the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. He watched the tanks and missile launchers rumble through the Red Square in a show of power not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. He has chosen China as the destination of his first state visit on May 23. The message is clear. As Cohen put it,

Despite its diminished status following the Soviet break-up in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military-industrial complex nearly America’s equal… and the planet’s largest oil and natural gas reserves.

(Courtesy: The New Indian Express)

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

- Themes Beyond Borders

Selections from Nikhil Chakravartty’s Writings

Introduction by K.R. Narayanan

Over quarter of a century, the general reading public, particularly the more intellectually inclined in the subcontinent, had looked forward avidly to the editorials and other writings of Nikhil Chakravartty in Mainstream for illumination and understanding of the bewildering developments within the region since 1947. It is, therefore, with nostalgia and great expectations that we turn to the present volume, focusing on Indo-Pak relations, containing Nikhilda’s precious writings on the complexities of developments in the subcontinent since 1947, and look for his analysis of the issues involved with flashes of prophetic ideas the relevance of which now strike us with added poignancy.

The predominant and recurring theme of this publication is to harness the common humanity of both the countries for durable peace and friendship.
The present volume is valuable from the point of view of correctly understanding the evolution of our relationship with Pakistan and educating public opinion about certain historical facts so that those are appreciated in the proper perspective. It is appropriate that on the 90th birth anniversary of Nikhilda this publication is being brought out.

This important book will be of immense value for scholars, policy-makers, students and readers.

(From Introduction by K.R. Narayanan)

Available at all major bookshops

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