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Tandemology 2.0

Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir PutinWhether they like it or not, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin are stuck with each other. And I strongly suspect they are both pretty much OK with that arrangement, even if their respective teams are obviously not.

That is the conclusion I slowly but surely came to as 2010 drew to a close. Once you cut through all the pokazukha and head-spinning tandemology (Look! Medvedev is asserting himself! Oh my! Putin is back and he just showed him who's boss!) and look at the issue logically, it is hard to come to any other conclusion.

Sure, the technocrats surrounding Medvedev, the liberal intelligentsia, and the democratic opposition would love to see Putin ride off (or be pushed) into retirement so they can commence a new wave of reform, modernization, and (dare I say it?) democratization unobstructed by old-style thinking.

But as much as I sympathize with this wing of the Russian elite, I don't see that happening for one simple reason. Without Putin's protection, Russia's various bureaucratic and siloviki clans would quickly emasculate Medvedev and render his presidency powerless. It would mean a return to the chaotic clan warfare and chaos associated with the wild 1990s. Whatever his intentions, Medvedev just doesn't have the muscle on his own to keep these wolves at bay.

And of course Putin's circle of siloviki would like to see their man back in the Kremlin so they can continue reaping energy profits and resume their Andropovian dream of building a centralized, authoritarian, vertically integrated and unitary executive to rule Russia as they please.

Needless to say, I do not sympathize with this vision of Russia. And as likely as this scenario looked back in 2007, I think it would be very difficult for the likes of Igor Sechin and Co. to pull it off today. Russia has changed too much over the past few years.

Yes, oil prices are recovering. But the shocks of 2008-09 seem to have taught a critical mass of the elite that an overreliance on energy and raw materials is a path to periodic crises and instability -- and a road to Brezhnevian stagnation. As much as the period gets romanticized, few really want a return to the Soviet late 1970s. Perestroika, after all, happened for a reason.

Moreover, Russian civil society has truly woken up in the past year or so, and public opposition will not be so easy to manage as it was in the past. 2011 is not 2001, or even 2007.

Keeping the tandem together (and that means Medvedev must remain president since he would quickly become irrelevant otherwise), addresses several problems at once.

First, as I have blogged here before, it allows for Medvedev to be the public face of a tightly controlled modernization effort under Putin's watchful eye. The specter of how the state disintegrated following perestroika still haunts the elite.

Second, it solves Russia's perennial succession crises that arise whenever a change at the top is in the offing (as it was in 1999 at the end of the Boris Yeltsin era and appeared to be in 2007-08 when Putin's second term was up). With Putin as the constant, the national leader, the boss of the "deep state" of the siloviki, a change at the presidential level is less traumatic. The only question here is what will Putin's formal role be (prime minister, leader of United Russia), but in the end it doesn't really mater.

And finally, maintaining the tandem intact establishes a leadership that can more or less keep a critical mass of citizens, including a reenergized civil society, more or less on board with the regime.

In his thoughtful and provocative review of 2010 in "Yezhednevny zhurnal," Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies notes that Putin and Medvedev are explicitly appealing to two distinct publics, which he playfully dubs "The Folks" and "The Non-Folks."

"The folks trust the state and the sovereign, they are sincere, patriotic, modest, sometimes outwardly naive, but inwardly wise. The 'non-folks,' on the contrary, are made up of people who are suspect, who do too much thinking for themselves, who are inclined to finding fault, and are, consequently, unreliable. The task of the sovereign is to rule the folks, by neutralizing the 'non-folks,' who try to confuse these loyal subjects, or even try to rebel."

So in 2011, I guess I expect more of the same as the current system solidifies. Mixed signals -- like allowing Strategy 31 protests and then detaining opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov -- will continue as the new boundaries of the system coming into place are negotiated and come into being.

Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036 http://www.rferl.org

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