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Medvedev Comes Into His Own

Dmitri MedvedevWhat has gotten into Dmitry Medvedev?

In just over two weeks he has slapped down Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for comments critical of the international military campaign in Libya, ordered government officials to give up their posts on corporate boards and fired dozens of senior police generals.

In openly rebuking Putin on foreign affairs, instituting a corporate policy that will harm the prime minister's key allies like Deputy Prime Minister and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, and purging the ranks of the Interior Ministry elites, Medvedev has sparked endless chatter that he has finally become his own man.

In an article in "Vedomosti" this week, Maksim Glikin writes that Medvedev "is clearly proclaiming a policy polar to the one promoted since 2000," when Putin came to power:

"That policy used the development of the power vertical as an excuse for pumping administrative and economic resources into bureaucracy. Its ranks swelled along with its immunity. Everything else -- from the media to the judiciary -- were adjusted to promote the bureaucracy's interests alone."

Glikin goes on to write that Medvedev is "trying to punch holes in the fence" that the elite has constructed "to isolate itself from society."

The question remains, why?

"Why irritate the whole ruling class all at once? And why the rush? Is it that he knows he has just one year left in office and wants to be remembered as a reformer? Or does he know that he is staying in power and has a free hand? Russian rulers who assume they are going to be in power for another seven years tend to be careful with reforms. It is this consideration that makes the former assumption more likely."

It's a clever argument, but I'm not sure I buy it.

Rather than suddenly appearing out of the blue, Medvedev's current hyperactive assertiveness has actually been building for months.

In November 2009 he fired his senior media adviser Mikhail Lesin, a former Putin aide who remained in the Kremlin after Medvedev took office.

In September 2010, he dismissed Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, one or Russia's most powerful politicians and a close Putin ally.

The Luzhkov firing capped off a rather remarkable run on the country's provincial barons in which Medvedev replaced a startling 34 regional leaders since taking office in May 2008 -- including some serious heavyweights who had been in office since Soviet times.

In March 2009 Medvedev replaced Oryol Governor Yegor Stroyev and Murmansk leader Yury Yevdokimov. Longtime Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel was eased into retirement in November 2009. Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksyutka and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev stepped down -- with more than a slight nudge from the Kremlin in January 2010. Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov saw the writing on the wall and announced his retirement in July 2010.

In February of this year, Medvedev raised eyebrows by calling for panel of legal experts to review the case of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Days after that, he rebuked Putin for saying that the January 24 terrorist attack on Moscow's Domodedovo Airport had been solved.

I was as intrigued as any Russia watcher by Medvedev's frantic moves over the past two weeks, but, as this little trip back in time should show, it was actually nothing new.

Medvedev has recalibrated Russian foreign policy toward greater pragmatism and away from the instinctive anti-Western tilt it took during Putin's presidency. He has overhauled the regional leadership. And is in the process of radically altering the nation's corporate policy.

But what does it mean for the future of the ruling tandem? Writing in today's "Moskovsky komsomolets," Mikhail Rostovsky suggests that the jury is still out:

"Participants in the tandem are playing complicated tactical games with each other. Each wants to be number one. Medvedev likes it where he is. Putin knows that premiership under Medvedev in a second term will differ from what it was during the first.

"Are their wishes and aspirations mutually exclusive? Perhaps. But Medvedev and Putin will have to reach an agreement by the end of the year. Before that, however, each will play it close to the chest and never let anyone make use of the discord within the tandem."

I think this is largely correct. But as I have blogged before, Plan A seems to be to somehow keep the tandem intact (which means Medvedev remaining president and Putin maintaining his dominant position in Russian politics).

Putin and Medvedev need each other because each appeals to a different wing of the elite. Without Putin's protection, Russia's various bureaucratic and siloviki clans would quickly emasculate Medvedev and render his presidency powerless. And a return to the authoritarian Putinism of 2004-07 would be very difficult -- if not impossible -- in the current political climate.

Moreover, Putin clearly understands that reforms are necessary but seems to prefer that Medvedev carry them out (under his watchful eye, of course).

As Sean Guillory wrote in a thoughtful recent post on his blog, Putin and Medvedev's contrasting styles "can indeed be reconciled into a Hegelian whole."

We're just waiting to see what form that "Hegelian whole" will take.

Article copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036; article first appeared at http://www.rferl.org/content/blog/3549227.html

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