Putin’s agenda and Medvedev’s dilemma

The flurry of interviews that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has given in the past few weeks has been thoroughly combed by experts and journalists in search of clues to the million-dollar mystery in Russian politics: Will Putin run in 2012 — or will he let his protégé Dmitry Medvedev serve another term?

There was no «smoking gun» (Putin is too clever for that), but the prime minister did articulate, openly and proudly, what amounted to a strategic agenda. It was a thoroughly and unmistakably reactionary one — and a point-by-point rebuttal of virtually every key element of the «modernization thaw» declared by President Medvedev, including the «reset» in U.S.-Russian relations.

Medvedev has described the country’s economy as «chronically backward,» «primitive,» dependent on «raw materials» and ignoring «the needs of the people.» Which is why, as some leading independent Russian economists have pointed out, the downturn in the national economy began even before the world crisis shredded the price of oil, and why Russia’s 2009 plunge in gross domestic product (7.9 percent) was the sharpest of all large national economies.

As Putin sees it, though, the country has been «progressing steadily,» and there are «no big problems.» Of course, the crisis — which had «no connection» to the Russian economy and came from «outside our territory,» did hold back Russia’s development — but only «a bit.» Overall, the national economy is «on the right track.»

Medvedev has condemned «chronic» corruption «eating away» at Russia and has made the fight against it the rhetorical leitmotif of his presidency. Graft, blackmail and shakedowns of entrepreneurs have become a pillar of Putinism and a structural obstacle to economic progress. All flourish under the protection of government’s iron grip on television, self-censorship of print media, and intimidated or bought courts.

To which Putin replies that, yes, corruption does exist in Russia, but it plagues many countries, and while Russian efforts to fight it «could, perhaps, be more effective,» this is a difficult question requiring «painstaking research.»

Medvedev has expressed grave concerns about Russia’s Muslim North Caucasus, which is today barely governable, mired in poverty and unemployment and swept up in relentless fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Nary a day passes, especially in Dagestan and Ingushetia, without an official — a police officer, judge, prosecutor, local functionary — being killed by terrorist attacks. Medvedev called the situation there the «most serious domestic political problem of our country.» This summer, the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted for a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Chechnya and the «disgraceful» personality cult of Putin’s handpicked president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

And Putin’s view? He says that what is happening in the North Caucasus is not «really terrorism in the proper sense of the word.» It is, rather, a struggle between «clans» for the «redistribution of property.» And Kadyrov is not only a «decisive warrior» but also «a very good economic leader,» a «great guy.»

Medvedev is worried that Russians are all but «defenseless» against the «arbitrariness» of authorities, suffer from «nonfreedom» (nesvoboda) and from «disdain» for the law. He has called for a «political culture of free and critically thinking people.»

Putin has heartily endorsed regular assaults by Moscow police on several hundred prodemocracy demonstrators: If the protesters chose to ignore the ban on demonstrations on Moscow’s Triumphal’naya Square in downtown Moscow, he said, they deserved to be «bashed about their heads by the billy clubs.»

And what about the «reset» with the United States, to which Medvedev pledged himself in three summits with President Obama? Putin says that he «would like» to believe in the reset. But isn’t Georgia «being rearmed» by the United States, and didn’t similar «re-arming» provoke Georgia’s «aggression» against South Ossetia two years ago? And isn’t the United States planning to deploy «antimissiles» in other European countries? So, «where is the reset»?

As these interviews show, the chasm between Putin’s and Medvedev’s visions of Russia’s future is so wide and so deep as to leave little doubt about the «Putin 2012» question. It is all but inconceivable that Putin would sit out the next presidential race. This is not a man who seems inclined to wait patiently until Medvedev’s second term ends in 2018 before moving to reverse what he clearly sees as dangerous deviations from Putinism.

What can Medvedev do? He could, like Nikita Khrushchev, pursue reform «within the system» — and probably would find himself opposed just as vigorously as Khrushchev was, neutralized by a corrupt and reactionary officialdom. This option would almost certainly bring an embarrassing display of impotence and perhaps an ignominious «retirement» in 2012.

Or the Russian president could try to reach out, as Mikhail Gorbachev did, to the pro-democracy opposition and, even more so, to Russia’s new middle-class protesters, who turned out this year to call for more economic and political freedom and to demand the return of elections for provincial governorships and Putin’s resignation. The most significant step here would be to ensure unimpeded registration of opposition parties and movements in the run-up to the Duma election next year, and an honest tally of the votes, just as in 1989 and 1990.

There is, of course, a third option: that of Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled with the blessing of the increasingly corrupt and hidebound nomenklatura for 18 years as the country sank ever deeper into economic, social and moral stagnation. But of course the Brezhnev option has already been taken: If Putin recaptures the Kremlin in 2012 and serves two six-year terms, he will, by 2024, have ruled Russia for 20 years, two years longer than Brezhnev, and very likely with the same result.

Leon Aron, director of Russian studies and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006.