It was the sort of conversation presidents are supposed to have on the margins of international summits. No senior aides, no microphones, no notebooks, just whispers. This is where deals are done, and understandings consummated. During a tête-à-tête at a nuclear disarmament summit in Seoul in March, President Barack Obama leaned over and whispered to his counterpart, Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev: “This is my last election… After my election I have more flexibility,” Obama said, referring to the planned deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system in Europe, to which Russia has strongly objected. “I understand,” Medvedev said, reaching out a sympathetic arm. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
However, both men’s privately shared anxieties about “Vladimir” were about to become part of the news cycle. As they looked up from their quiet conversation, they found that their microphones were still on. In the annals of modern superpower summitry, their gaffe might go down as the most embarrassing moment two leaders have shared since George W. Bush’s abortive neck rub on Angela Merkel in 2006. On the podium were two of the most powerful men in the world, broadcasting their painfully obvious preoccupation with Vladimir. Obama needed “Vladimir” to give him some “space” on missile defence, while Medvedev – having voluntarily agreed to surrender the presidency of Russia on May 7 – wanted to make sure that Vladimir didn’t encounter any rude surprises.
For the Russians, their president’s promise to take Obama’s message up the command chain largely confirmed what everyone already suspected about Medvedev’s lame-duck presidency. For the next 48 hours, the phrase “I’ll transmit this to Vladimir” became a national joke, used after any declarative statement. “I’d like a cappuccino.” Answer: “I will transmit this to Vladimir”. The hashtag #владимиру, Russian for “to Vladimir”, briefly appeared in the trending top 10 on Twitter.
Over the past six months, Russians have become used to such displays of unintentional glasnost by the Kremlin, as the country’s famously well-oiled machine of conspiracy and intrigue has begun to wobble dangerously, amid the worst political crisis in 12 years. As crowds took to the streets in December to protest against a rigged parliamentary election – in which Putin’s United Russia party won nearly 50 per cent of the vote – camera-phone videos of ballot stuffing flooded the internet, feeding the unrest; private rebellions by senior aides were broadcast on Twitter; and Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister and erstwhile pillar of the regime, spoke on the podium at an opposition rally.
Then, in a fit of uncharacteristic big talk, the usually self-effacing Medvedev claimed his share of credit for the turmoil, telling a group of students in January that the demonstrators included many of his supporters, angered that he would not seek a second term as president.
No one let their guard down more than “Vladimir” himself, however. In one media appearance after another, Russians got an earful of the world according to Putin: the demonstrations had been caused by a “signal” sent by Hillary Clinton, he said; white ribbons worn by protesters reminded him of condoms; and, in a particularly hallucinogenic homage to Rudyard Kipling, he impersonated the python, Kaa, from The Jungle Book in the middle of a televised talk show. “Come to me, Bandar-logs,” he said, referring to protesters as the leaderless monkeys of Kipling’s novel.
“Putin is surrounded almost exclusively by sycophants and favour seekers, and there is no one to tell him when he is sounding weird and scary,” said Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of the opposition weekly The New Times. “Suddenly, everyone is getting a good look at what it is like inside his head.”
While 12 years in power may have taken a toll on his sense of perspective, Vladimir Putin will be back in the driver’s seat of the Kremlin for the third time, after his presidential inauguration on Monday. A much-reduced Medvedev will step down, to become prime minister. Hopes once harboured – by officials inside the Obama administration, Russian democrats, and even some of the country’s richest men – that Russia could take a course of more liberal reforms, under a continuation of the Medvedev presidency, now seem, like the protests of the winter, to have melted away with the snow.
While the proximate cause of the crisis that rocked Russia was the rigging of the December 4 parliamentary elections, the roots go much deeper. Opposition demonstrations against Putin, numbering 50,000–100,000, showed that a critical mass of educated, above-average-income Muscovites were unhappy with the direction the country has taken over the past 12 years.
As more and more information trickles out of the previously leak-proof Kremlin, it is becoming clearer that what happened was not just a run-of-the-mill social explosion driven by a new, iPad-wielding middle class; instead, the protests intersected with a struggle behind the scenes inside the Kremlin, over the future direction of the country. Those backing liberalisation and economic reform included a number of tycoons who made their fortunes in the 1990s under previous president Boris Yeltsin. They were banking on the fact that Dmitry Medvedev would win a second term in 2012. Conservative forces, however – including a number of other billionaires who made their fortunes during Putin’s time in office – backed Putin to return for a third term. Putin had a more conservative vision: under his 12 years of de facto rule the state had increased its dominance over the economy, democracy was in retreat, and Russia, in the slang of the political elite, was run by “manual control”.
In 2011, Medvedev had begun to attack conservatives. Last June, at an economic forum in St Petersburg, he called for a rapid acceleration of privatisation, a rollback of the state’s dominance of the economy, and political liberalisation. Visiting dignitaries, such as Lord Mandelson, left the forum saying they were convinced they had just heard a stump speech from a man who wanted to lead his country for another four years.
In one of his boldest moves, Medvedev ordered the firing of state officials from the boards of state companies. The biggest target was Igor Sechin, the Putin ally and former spy who had been a gatekeeper to Putin since the early days of their careers. Sechin was simultaneously deputy prime minister, responsible for the energy sector, and chairman of state oil company Rosneft – personifying the conflicts of interest that pervade the Russian ruling elite.
“It is the progressives against the conservatives. This is the battle that’s going on,” said Igor Yurgens, head of a think-tank which advises Medvedev. “It seems to me that Putin feared we were not ready for serious progressive reform: that traditional groups of economic influence were not ready for the liberalisation that Medvedev had drawn up.”
Few would have guessed the tensions under the surface from the backslapping display of unity put on by Putin and Medvedev, as they gathered in the southern resort town of Sochi every August for a “tandem” holiday, riding jet skis and playing badminton. The two men rowed publicly only once, over the UN resolution on a no-fly zone over Libya. However, Andrei Kolesnikov, who has covered the Putin beat at Kommersant newspaper for the past 12 years, and wrote the first authorised biography of Putin, said that maintaining the placid exterior was the central principle of competition within the Kremlin. “The various teams are expected to fight with each other, to compete for everything on behalf of their boss,” he said. “But the cardinal rule is that the principals should never be dragged into these battles unless they want to be.”
Konstantin Remchukov, the editor and owner of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the influential Moscow daily newspaper, said that competition among staff was obvious. “Putin would make an appointment to see a minister at 10:15 in the White House, in downtown Moscow, while Medvedev would make an appointment with the same minister a few hours later at his residence outside the city,” meaning it was nearly impossible for the minister to make both appointments on time. “It was a kind of managed chaos,” said Remchukov.
The US embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan recorded a similar observation by Russian defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, in a March 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks. One evening, Serdyukov reportedly confided to his Azerbaijani counterpart (“after the second bottle of vodka”, according to the cable): “Do you follow the orders of your president?… Well, I follow the orders of two presidents.”
A forceful, merciless and omnipotent ruler has been a near-permanent fixture inside the red brick walls and onion domes of the Kremlin since it was first built in the 15th century. And yet, this image of the tsar has always been at least partly the result of a co-operative effort by the Kremlin court, in which the notables and barons conspired to make even the weak, sickly, absurdly young, or the utterly disinterested in ruling appear fearsome, while painting themselves as quivering supplicants.
In a classic essay published in the 1970s, at the height of the cold war, Harvard historian Edward L. Keenan argued that the notion of an omnipotent, autocratic tsar has largely been a myth throughout 500 years of Russian history; instead, the rule has been a system of Kremlin court politics, within which the guiding principle is consensus. Clan politics within the Kremlin, he wrote, was “symbolically expressed in a kind of self-imposed fictional subservience to an autocratic tsar, and ensured by the awareness that the fiction was the central element of a conspiracy against political chaos that would ensue if clan were to be set against clan”.
Keenan’s conclusions appear every bit as valid today as they did 30 years ago. While Putin is unquestionably the most powerful figure in Russia, it is clear he doesn’t entirely lay claim either to the aura of absolutist tsar, as projected by his supporters, or autocratic despot, as proposed by his detractors.
“You know, Putin is not in fact a dictator,” said Oleg Vyugin, chairman of MDM Bank, and former deputy head of Russia’s central bank. “A dictator is when you really do control the elite, and each day decide, ‘Today you’re getting this and tomorrow you’re getting this, and you’re not getting anything’… For Putin, the situation is more complicated. Putin has to take into account very many different interests in politics, and try to combine them.”
Instead of an Olympian throne, it would seem that Putin sits at the nexus of modern-day boyar clans in perpetual conflict, in the form of the state corporations, oligarchic financial-industrial groups, bureaucrats and the police.
Political competition and the order of succession were something that Putin and Medvedev “almost surely never discussed except in very general terms”, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political consultant to the Kremlin, who was sacked in April 2011 for championing Medvedev’s candidacy too energetically. “There are some things that two people just won’t discuss, because they are hard to talk about,” he said.
With a warm, owl-like, unflappable countenance, enhanced by ever-present spectacles dangling from the tip of his nose, Pavlovsky claimed the events of the past six months amounted to a power struggle between Putin and Medvedev supporters. “I think that there was a campaign to make Putin afraid of Medvedev, and Medvedev afraid of Putin,” he said. “Each was made to understand that the other was plotting something … that the other was dangerous.”
Putin, he said, suspected that Medvedev was preparing “some sort of first strike” in spring 2011. Constitutionally, Medvedev could call for the resignation of the government, along with the prime minister, up to six months prior to presidential elections. Meanwhile, Medvedev became convinced that it was too dangerous to enter into conflict with Putin. “Medvedev continued to say that he wanted to be president, but on the inside he continued to prepare to surrender,” said Pavlovsky.
Pavlovsky added that the decision on the future of the “tandem” was taken in Sochi last August, where both men spent most of the time deep in conference. “They went on vacation and came back as different people, behaving differently,” he said.
On September 24, Moscow was stunned when the two men told a United Russia party congress that the decision as to who would run for president in 2012 had been made long ago – and that Putin would take over from Medvedev. Medvedev justified the announcement by saying “we saw such a scenario back when we began our comradely alliance.” However, Pavlovsky dismissed the notion that it had always been thus, and emphasised that Medvedev had told his supporters on numerous occasions (both in public and in private) that he hoped to run again this year. “Some pressure was brought to bear on him, that is for sure,” he said.
Succession in the Kremlin has always been a matter of conspiracy. Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991 amid the bizarre coup by hardliners against Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin then won the 1996 election, helped by seven oligarchs, who funnelled cash and advisers to his campaign in exchange for cheap state assets. Putin succeeded Yeltsin during a similarly opaque process, known to insiders as Operation Successor, in which Yeltsin chose Putin as his anointed heir and abdicated in his favour on New Year’s Eve 1999, in a plot known only to six or seven people at the time.
In many ways, the September rokirovka, as the Putin-Medvedev job swap is known in Russian (after the Russian term for castling in chess, whereby the rook and king trade places), was too good a conspiracy. So few people knew about it (probably only Putin and Medvedev) that there was no one to tell the two men they were making a major blunder.
By claiming that he and Putin had decided on the presidential handover four years ago, Medvedev was contradicting the numerous statements he had made to the effect that they had yet to make a decision. And on September 26, two days after the joint declaration, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a tabloid newspaper whose chief political commentator is (perhaps only coincidentally) the husband of Medvedev’s press secretary, ran a blistering editorial. The country “has just received a lesson in unbridled cynicism,” the paper wrote. “Russia consists not only of government bureaucrats… and everyone whose consciousness has not been demolished by ecstatic glee [over Putin’s return] has understood that you have lied to us for four years.”
A day later, the Kremlin court was rocked by a political earthquake, as Alexei Kudrin, long-time finance minister and Putin’s closest friend in cabinet, lashed out at Medvedev, saying he would not work in the new government, having clearly expected the prime ministership himself. The next day, Medvedev fired him. The smooth running, managed democracy of the Putin era was in crisis.
Following the announcement of his return to the presidency, Putin’s popularity began to fall dramatically. The number of Russians answering yes to the question “Do you trust prime minister Vladimir Putin?” dipped from 54 per cent at the end of September to 46 per cent in November.
“Putin was assured that once he announced his return, his popularity would shoot into the heavens,” said Pavlovsky. “The opposite happened.”
In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Putin came under increasing pressure. In November, stepping into the ring of a martial arts match to congratulate the winner, he was abruptly booed by the crowd. He stammered through his lines but was clearly flummoxed by the reaction. A few days later, his staff cancelled a similar public appearance he was scheduled to make in St Petersburg.
Parliamentary elections on December 4 added fuel to the crisis. Marred by fraud, they were followed on December 10 by street demonstrations, culminating in a peaceful protest that drew an unheard of 50,000 people to Bolotnaya Square, near the Kremlin. The largest anti-Kremlin demonstrations since the 1990s were stoked by Russia’s new middle class, angered at election fraud.
“These were people who, for most of the past decade, had been focused on getting by,” said Robert Shlegel, a parliamentary deputy of the United Russia party. “Suddenly, they decided, ‘Well, we pay taxes, and we want the state to work for us too.’” There was another factor at work, argues Alexei Mitrofanov, a garrulous deputy from the opposition Just Russia party. “The protests did not happen without some help from high places,” he said. The Kremlin’s famous “corridor games” had fanned the flames of the protest, as different factions of the elite struggled to seize the political momentum.
What made these protests different was the granting of legal permission for tens of thousands of people to gather. This had never previously happened under Putin: in fact, demonstrations usually consisted of more grey-clad Omon riot police than demonstrators. Mitrofanov, however, does not agree with the majority opinion that allowing the demonstrations to go ahead was a pragmatic step designed to “let steam out” of the opposition. Before the big protests started in December, a series of much smaller, unsanctioned protests against vote fraud had been put down with ease by the police. “The protests had been beaten. There was no reason to allow them to go ahead, but someone made such a decision nonetheless.”
Mitrofanov believes this someone was Medvedev. Many opposition leaders likewise believe that Medvedev gave personal sanction to the protests and personally intervened to ensure the protesters’ safety. However, confirming this is next to impossible (a Medvedev spokesperson declined to comment, and Putin’s spokesman said it was the mayor’s office that made the decision). And even if it were true, it is only possible to guess at the reasons. Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist and one of the organisers of the demonstrations, said it was clear that the president’s administration – in the person of deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov – gave the go-ahead. “I was there when the deputy mayor called Surkov to ask his advice about the demonstrations,” said Chirikova. Surkov could not be reached for comment, but some maintain that his abrupt transfer a few days after the protests, to a new job as a deputy prime minister, may have been the result of an internal power struggle.
According to Konstantin Remchukov, Medvedev asked Vladimir Kolokoltsev, chief of the Moscow police force, “to ensure that the demonstrators were not driven away, that they were not arrested, and no obstacles were put in their way”.
A few days later came an even bigger demonstration on Sakharov Prospekt, numbering 80,000– 100,000 people. The headline news was that none other than former finance minister Alexei Kudrin had addressed the crowd – one of Putin’s most trusted cadres, who had been fired by Medvedev after he publicly questioned the president’s ability to lead the government in September.
Medvedev’s attitude to the protests is difficult to read. Gleb Pavlovsky pointed out that Medvedev did not publicly endorse Putin’s candidacy for president after the parliamentary elections, and did not until after Putin had won the presidential elections on March 4. And Medvedev flirted with demonstrators on January 25: addressing students at Moscow State University’s journalism faculty, he said: “Among those who came out on Bolotnaya Square, on Sakharov Prospekt were perhaps people who had hoped for a different political outcome, including for my participation in the presidential elections.
I absolutely accept this. It’s fine.”
All this fed the paranoia in Putin’s circle. “From the standpoint of a large part of Putin’s circle – and, likely, [from] Putin as well – the December demonstrations were inspired by Medvedev’s circle, if perhaps not by Medvedev personally. I think this is what Putin was thinking as well,” said Pavlovsky.
Putin himself seems to have suspected unseen foreign hands. “[Opposition leaders] heard the signal and with the support of the US state department began active work,” Putin said, after Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, expressed concern about the conduct of the parliamentary elections.
Putin’s rhetoric grew more paranoid, more nationalistic and more confrontational. “We will not allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs!” he told a stadium crowd in February. “We will not allow anyone to force their will upon us, because we have our own will… We are a victorious people! It is in our genetic code. It is transferred from generation to generation, and we will have victory!”
“By the end of the campaign it was already a campaign of fear,” said Pavlovsky. “Fear of losing Putin. ‘Putin is in danger, we might lose him, and we have to save him.’”
Putin’s energetic appeal to the Russian heartland – outside the restless urban centres, to a majority of the population that wants stability above all else, and that still fears the west – helped him win handily in the presidential elections on March 4. Putin’s total share of the vote (63 per cent) was widely questioned, but his win was not. “Putin won cleanly,” said Igor Yurgens, head of a think-tank that advises Medvedev. “Of course they added 10 or 12 per cent. But everyone admits that he won.”
Putin has undeniably been weakened by the protests. A straw poll of movers and shakers in Moscow reveals that most are pessimistic about his chances in the 2018 presidential elections. Alexander Khinshteyn, a deputy from Putin’s ruling United Russia party, put it bluntly: “I don’t think he will run again,” he said, adding that he believed Putin would move to a more symbolic position, “like Deng Xiaoping”. “I can guarantee you 100 per cent that Putin is not going for a fourth term,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, at Kommersant newspaper.
However, not all Russians are so sure. In a poll conducted in late April by Moscow’s Levada Center, 40 per cent of Russians said they believed Putin would rule beyond 2018, while 38 per cent said they thought he would serve just one more term; a further 6 per cent believed “he would barely be able to stay in power two to three more years”.
While Dmitry Medvedev, who becomes prime minister after Putin’s inauguration, would clearly like another shot at the presidency in 2018, few believe he is electable. He “committed political suicide” by voluntarily stepping down from the job, said one Duma deputy, who asked not to be named. “Who would work for him now?”
In other words, the issue of succession, which has consumed Moscow’s political circles for the past four years, is not about to go away. The “corridor games” of Kremlin intrigue look set to dominate the next six years as well. 6
Charles Clover is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief. Catherine Belton is the FT’s Moscow correspondent. To comment on this article, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The man in the middle
Moscow’s winter protests led to the downfall of a key political figure, former Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, whose removal from his post abruptly – on December 27 2011 – prompted speculation that he was the victim of a power struggle between the Putin and Medvedev camps.
Having served under three presidents, Surkov was the chief architect of the Kremlin’s system of “managed democracy”.
Konstantin Remchukov, Moscow newspaper editor, said Surkov had begun to reject politics as authoritarian theatre, and supported political liberalisation under Medvedev. “Surkov became a carbonaro,” he said, invoking the secret society of liberal reformers in 19th-century Italy. Others believe Surkov was simply following orders. “When he worked for President Putin he was Putin’s man. And when he worked for President Medvedev he was Medvedev’s man,” said Marat Gelman, a former political consultant to the Kremlin.
According to protesters, Surkov was a key figure in gaining official permission for legal demonstrations, and had given an interview to Izvestia newspaper calling the demonstrators the “best of our society”.
Four days later he was transferred to a relatively peripheral post: deputy prime minister in charge of modernisation. Evoking French revolutionary Georges Danton, standing before the guillotine, Surkov wryly observed: “Stabilisation has eaten its young.”