Russia: Untangling the Putin-Medvedev Relationship

It's been a year since Dmitry Medvedev solemnly strode through the Kremlin along a carpet runner and took the oath of office to become the third president of Russia. He began his term vigorously, emphasizing that he had his own, softer style than predecessor Vladimir Putin while initiating judicial reforms and a campaign against corruption. Last July, he even declared that businesses should not be harassed after Putin undermined the stock market with an angry tirade at the metallurgical company Mechel.

But then the war with Georgia occurred, the Russian economy tipped downhill, and political scientists concluded that Medvedev's agenda had devolved into a fiasco. The new president seemed to drop from sight, and Putin came back to the forefront of Russian politics. Of course, Putin had never actually left the stage. After eight years as president, he simply took over as prime minister when Medvedev assumed office. And when the Duma (the Russian Parliament) overwhelmingly amended the Constitution in December allowing for an extension to presidential terms, it became clear that the real power still belonged to Putin-and would continue to do so for a long time to come. Little surprise then, that when pollsters asked Russians to identify the top person in the country, they answered that it was the prime minister.

This fact was only underscored in early January, when the Russian company Gazprom shut off the last valve in the Urengoi-Pomary-Uzhgorod pipeline, cutting off several European countries from their primary supply of natural gas. The European Union responded with fury, and it was Putin who explained to journalists the next day that he "doesn't bargain with gas, or cucumbers, or lard, or anything else." The decision to shut down the flow of gas, it was clear, was not Medvedev's to make. Indeed, NEWSWEEK has learned that Medvedev's first comment on the crisis was prepared by the office of Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.

The gas conflict revived the question that officials had already been asking for months: If Putin, as prime minister, determined foreign policy, controlled regional aid and financial resources and crafted Constitutional change, then what decisions did Medvedev make? The answer, according to NEWSWEEK's sources, is that Medvedev has chosen initiatives over decisions.

It was Medvedev, says a source close to the Kremlin, who secured the resignation of Ingush president Murat Zyazikov, when the conflict in Ingushetia [the tiny Russian republic bordering troubled Chechnya] worsened in October. Putin himself would not have ousted Zyazikov; he would have felt that the pressure on him was enough to make the point. And it was Medvedev, say various sources, who proposed replacing, a string of long-serving regional governors. Ultimately only one of the governors left, but only because other authorities were afraid of removing the rest. And while Medvedev did clear candidacies for the gubernatorial replacements with Putin, they would not have emerged without Medvedev's prompting, says political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin.

Other Medvedev efforts have had mixed results. His anti-corruption package reached the Duma in severely truncated form, and his plan to publicize the incomes of top Russian officials was defeated. (The wealthiest person in the government proved to be First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov—or rather, his wife—even though Shuvalov is not among the top ten in the Moscow government building known as the White House in terms of income, says a government source.) In foreign policy Medvedev has been even less of a factor, making no personal decisions aside from last summer's sign-off on the G8 statement on Zimbabwe. There wasn't much point as it turned out: a day later Moscow blocked sanctions against the southern African country in the U.N. Security Council.

Still, a dearth of decision does not mean a dearth of ambition. Officials say that Medvedev, undeterred by the initial failure of his agenda, is trying again. And this time, he's doing it without support from the top.

In a recent burst of activity, Medvedev pardoned 12 people, gave a wide-ranging interview to opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta-his first with a Russian newspaper-and met with liberal economists from INSOR [the Institute of Contemporary Development] as well as with human rights advocates. On April 21, a Moscow court unexpectedly ordered the early release of Svetlana Bakhmina, a mother of three and former lawyer for Yukos, the oil company formerly owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the onetime oligarch who famously clashed with Putin and now resides in prison in the Russian city of Krasnokamensk. Why the flurry? Because, say sources, Medvedev want to distinguish himself without pitting himself against Putin.

The approach seems to be working. "Medvedev was a puppet, but now he seems to be doing things that may not please Putin," says Altai political scientist Yuri Chernyshov. It is unknown, for instance, what Putin thinks of the judicial changes that Medvedev has launched, but they are in high gear, sources in the Kremlin and in the establishment confirm. Medvedev's agenda includes improving judicial transparency and allowing judges to be appointed for life rather than requiring them to be reconfirmed by the Kremlin every three years—a proposal that is widely expected to be adopted. The point, as NEWSWEEK wrote last summer, was to shield judges from the influence of government officials, specifically the siloviki—the hard-line faction of Putin's inner circle. According to political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky, the effort has been at least partly successful. And Medvedev isn't stopping there. While other agency budgets are being cut, subsidies for the judicial system are growing.

Judges, of course, are the priority, but Medvedev is also moving forward in dealing directly with the government elite. He is clearly growing stronger, sources in the Kremlin say. One presidential council after another is being established-from anti-corruption to the development of an information-based society to the affairs of the disabled. In doing so, a source close to the Kremlin says, Medvedev is building his own power base: Officials sit on the councils, and this way he can give them instructions over Putin's head. "This has the makings of a potential conflict," says the source.

The situation has created challenges for Putin—in formal terms, it is now hard for him to reach the Foreign Ministry or his own siloviki. Since last fall, the flow of documents has been completely separated between the Kremlin and the White House. This means that work in both places is already running on an autonomous track. The risks of overlap are growing. Simply put, war has broken out between the bureaucracies, several sources assert, and instructions from the Russian White House and the Kremlin contradict each other with increasing frequency. A Kremlin source reports that, not so long ago, Medvedev held a meeting with ministers at his home in Gorki only to learn there that Deputy Prime Minister Sechin was meeting with agency heads to discuss the very same topic. "The routine has become jammed up," explains a source close to the Kremlin.

Further complicating matters, Russia's recession is gradually developing into a depression, forcing Putin to make important economic decisions himself-something he doesn't much like, says a source close to the government. In addition, Putin doesn't have that many confidants, the source says. Putin himself probably has less confidence in his inner circle already. "Putin has not been told the truth for a long time already," a source in the Kremlin says.

The bureaucratic conflict is unlikely to grow into anything more, however, simply because the symbiotic situation suits both Putin and Medvedev. Putin is comfortable because he still has the levers of control, and Medvedev finds things easier in Putin's shadow: There's less responsibility, but the presidential privileges are undiminished.