07.06.2009
Chances for a Reset in Russian Politics
№2 2009 April/June

The thesis that the “bottom” of the economic crisis may be close
at hand has become very popular in recent statements by Russian
politicians, who also tend to add that its consequences will be
felt for another three years.

Supposedly, the crisis will peter out by 2012, that is, as if by a
lucky coincidence, exactly by the moment when Russian citizens have
to go to the polls to elect the president. Under the recently
approved amendments to the Constitution, citizens and the political
elite will elect the new head of state for six years, instead of
four, as was the case before.

But this is not about a mere coincidence of the crisis timeframe
with the election cycle. From the economic point of view, the
crisis is unprecedented, and nobody can forecast precisely when it
might end, either in the Russian or world economy. The thing is
that Russian elites increasingly view the crisis and the prospects
for pulling out of it as a serious challenge and a political
project, albeit with unclear parameters but, in any event, with
very significant consequences.

THE MAIN POLITICAL PRIZE OF THE CRISIS

The issue of the development of the political situation in Russia
from the point of view of the political setup and the future of the
government remains as pressing as it was before the crisis. It has
been clear that as President Dmitry Medvedev’s term in office is
running out day by day, the countdown to the event called “the next
presidential election” where Vladimir Putin would be able to run
again, will be clicking increasingly louder.

A partial Constitutional reform, carried out to increase the term
of office for the State Duma and the president, has not changed the
setup: rather, it has only made the countdown louder. The onset of
the economic crisis has introduced certain new circumstances and
inputs in the 2012 problem, which are just beginning to affect the
strategy of behavior of the main influential groups and political
leaders.

The first thing the crisis did politically was to raise the
inevitable and crucial question for the 2012 elections, namely “Who
has defeated the crisis?” Earlier, this circumstance was not
factored in the calculations of the main contenders, who might only
talk about “stability,” “further steady development, “higher
standards of living,” “strengthening positions in the world” – in
short, the promises or objectives whose political capital has much
depreciated since.

The coveted new large political super-prize for victory over the
crisis will be influencing not only the logic of actions, but also
the psychology of political leaders’ behavior. The already started
discussions about how large the current crisis is or how it can be
overcome clearly indicate what the unfolding struggle is
about.

The idea that the current crisis is purely economic and does not
affect the groundwork of the socio-political system highlights the
anti-crisis policy of the Russian government and the prime
minister, as well as the economic indicators Russia will post in
overcoming the crisis. A broader outlook for the current crisis,
with prospects for economic restructuring, social modernization,
and political innovations, draws one’s attention to presidential
powers and Medvedev’s policy to fight corruption, improve the
judicial system, and develop civil society institutions.

The person who will win the 2012 election will simultaneously be
hailed as “the victor over the crisis,” with all political
advantage it packs and resource for further actions.

This point is extremely significant, because the second new and
important input of the crisis is that a change in the setup of
forces in the economy, partial re-division of property and the
reshuffle of political elites is objectively becoming a key process
for the next few years. The normalization and re-capitalization of
the strategic assets of the national economy will take some time,
and this time can conveniently match the announced three-year
period before the end of the crisis. Then, as the country is
pulling out of the crisis and during the period of the six-year
presidency, a new “agenda” will be set, including new
privatization, the formation of a new durable structure of property
in the economy and its new image or, rather, a collective portrait
of these proprietors.

Undoubtedly, this process will heavily involve politics and
reshuffles in political elites. For example, regional Russian
elites are incurring potentially the largest crisis-incurred
losses, aside from companies and prominent business leaders.

The unequivocal and reiterative statements by the federal
authorities about the poor effectiveness of regional leaders in
fighting the crisis, along with increasingly frequent resignations
by regional leaders is a clear signal of what level within the
authorities has been assigned to bear the main political and
personal responsibility for the crisis.

The current crisis has brought the principles of the existence of
regional elites and the federal center’s regional policy to a
certain landmark, which might put an end to the rather extended
period of their existence. It has been dragging on since the
beginning of the 1990s, despite the seemingly varied and
significant turns of events in subsequent years. At that time, the
bargaining between regional elites and the federal center along the
lines “effectiveness and stability in exchange for political
loyalty, de-centralization and economic resources” was usually
successful, although sometimes it ended up in claims for
sovereignty or, worse, separatism, as in the case with ethnic
republics. The default of 1998 consolidated part of regional elites
who aspired to establish their own control over the federal
government. The necessity to counterbalance the situation not only
resulted in Vladimir Putin’s coming to power, but also
pre-determined the main guidelines and elements of his program to
build the so-called vertical of power in the “zero years,” i.e. the
first decade of the new millennium: from federal control over
inter-budgetary relations and the fight against secessionist trends
to the re-distribution of government powers in favor of the federal
center, and, lastly, the cancellation of direct gubernatorial
elections.

However, the bargaining continued to remain the framework for all
possible changes in relations between the federal and regional
elites. Regional elites kept swapping their political loyalty and
making concessions by yielding some of their powers to Moscow for
the opportunity to remain in office and draw economic and
administrative annuity from their respective provinces. The recent
“fat years” contributed to the success of this strategy, mostly
free of conflicts, when a surplus of resources and opportunities to
develop them provided for co-existence on more or less amicable
terms.

And again, the economic crisis and the ensuing shortage of funds
has changed the situation. Unlike the late 1990s, regional elites
have no serious opportunities to pursue a political or economic
game of their own, which is the main achievement of the
centralization policy in the “zero years.” The federal authorities
therefore can either impose the main “tax” of political costs on
regional elites during the crisis and then return to the previous
relations, or renounce the present model of “federalism of
intra-elite bargaining” in favor of some new principles of regional
policy.

Conceivably, the leader who will claim “victory over the crisis”
will have a resource for reconfiguring the political and economic
setup in the country.

THE FATE OF THE TANDEM

The question about the victory and victor in the crisis lends a new
tonality to the discussion about what will happen to the political
model of the “tandemocracy” of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin, which has formed after the 2008
presidential election.

As the new political model began to function, it was generally
assumed that Putin was still undecided on whether the political
system he had built and the team he had formed would be able to
work effectively without his direct supervision and “manual
control.” In short, he was not certain if he would have to seek
another presidential term.

To keep this option open, Putin became prime minister and leader of
the United Russia party. This also gave him room for maneuver and
political initiative. During Medvedev’s term in office, Putin could
have more insight into the situation, and convert his premiership
and party chairmanship into an instrument to implement one of the
three possible scenarios.

The first scenario envisions Putin’s role as a protector and a
“safety mechanism” for Medvedev. He will gradually introduce him to
the ins and outs of presidency and transfer to him, step by step,
an increasingly large volume of real powers and functions. After
completing this “gradual succession” program and Medvedev’s
re-election in 2012, he may resign the post of prime minister but
remain the leader of the ruling party.

Under the second scenario, things may take a turn for the worse
within the next few years, and it will become clear that the risks
inherent in the poorly controlled system are too great, while
external challenges and socio-economic threats are considerable. In
that event, the post of prime minister makes a good floor for
Putin’s comeback as president, who might even return early, in case
of contingency.

The third scenario suggests that the system of de-centralization
and power-sharing between Medvedev and Putin will prove effective
and help forge a consensus among elites and the public that this
new form of government in Russia should acquire legislative
underpinning, perhaps, by partial Constitutional reform (which
would include not only the already adopted amendments but also
certain additional specifications of the power-sharing system). It
would not imply permanent diarchy or transfer to a parliamentary
republic but, rather, a full-fledged institutionalization of a sort
of “French model” of  the balance of forces, powers and
responsibilities between the presidential and government powers,
with reliance on parliament and the system of political
parties.

Today, a year since President Medvedev taking office and forming a
tandem with Putin, none of these scenarios can be discarded, but,
at the same time, none is given a final preference.
One might say the Medvedev-Putin tandem started up and covered the
first 100 meters of the track, but the finish line is yet far off,
especially because we do not know what distance they are running.
The economic crisis is an extra complication in this situation:
perhaps, they are not just runners but decathlon competitors facing
shotput, pole-vaulting, and javelin throwing, in addition to
hurdling.

There is no complete clarity, and on top of that, new uncertainties
have emerged.

On the other hand, one might be reasonably certain that the
scenario options will exist until a principled political decision
has been made on who will run in the 2012 presidential polls:
Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin. The decision should be due
before early 2011 and the start of preparations for the parliament
election campaign.

But for now, the tandem situation will be quite stable. It will be
developing under the pre-set and easily seen rules. There is a
rather clear-cut division of the spheres of influence and areas of
activities between the president and the prime minister. Each has
the right of initiatives and the right of priority in governance
and decision-making in his respective field.

However, a sort of a “tandem veto system” has been formed as well:
Putin can block any presidential initiative, while Medvedev, as the
head of state, can scrap any actions by the parliament or
government, on the strength of his Constitutional powers.

The parties do not abuse their “veto powers,” because only the two
of them within this model will always have a controlling stake in
the political system. This means that the “two keys” principle will
be applied to the broadest possible range of powers of the
president and the prime minister: consent of both is essential on
key decisions or their implementation. Hence the rules of the games
in the “power tandem” system are so arranged that the point of
balance, at least in the absence of force majeure, is reached not
through the maximum weakening or strengthening of one of the
diarchy partners but through parity between them, which provides,
among other things, for curbing the ambitions of the teams lined up
behind each leader.

On top of that (perhaps, this is the key point), neither President
Medvedev, nor Prime Minister Putin are interested in any weakening,
belittling or discrediting the very institution of presidential
power in Russia. For the incumbent president, it is more than
obvious. For Putin, it is logical, too, because the prospect of his
return to the office of president cannot be ruled out.

What the ongoing economic crisis makes inevitable (given the above
new main prize of “victory over the crisis” in the 2012 polls) is
that the “tandemocracy” system is unlikely to survive after
Medvedev’s present term.

In the long run, it will remain a purely interim form either before
backtracking to the old mono-centrist and personality model of
monopolistic presidential power, or before an accelerated transfer
to a new stage, including Constitutional changes in the system of
power balance and power-sharing between the branches of power in
Russia.

The development of the situation under the second option would
imply that the Russian political elite is ready to give up for good
the model of a political mono-centrist, super-presidential
republic, in order to keep their positions and stability for a long
while. They would wish to eradicate the fundamental problem of
complete change of government in the present system – the necessity
to carry the risks of possible monopoly over power by one person,
regardless of who he is.

If the present tandem eventually achieves greater institutional
certainty for the political system, it will be one of the main
positive achievements of Medvedev’s presidency, especially because
the political system, most likely, should become more complex and
less unequivocal in institutional terms, if we mean a large-scale
socio-economic modernization of the country and a more
sophisticated structure of society and social interests.

PROBLEMS OF THE NEW “PUBLIC ACCORD”

In the evaluation of the prospects for political processes in
Russia in the next few years, an increasingly important role is
played by not so much the political process within elites, its
ramified scenarios and “road maps,” as the dynamics of social
processes amidst the crisis.

Today, the discussion that any society has a private public accord
(which finds itself under threat in the conditions of collapse of
the world economy) is gaining momentum and topicality. The future
will depend both on the force of the economic blow delivered at a
given country but, mostly, on the nature of its political system
and specifics of this very public accord.

The Russian political model of the “zero years” has never been
tested by economic crises or downturns before, although it did
function under quite low prices of oil and a low volume of annuity,
quite similar to what we have at present. In other words, the most
important thing for its political stability is an upward trend or
its absence, not the economic situation at any given point. It is
not about a snapshot of current problems or achievements, but a
positive or negative image of the future. Hence, the legitimacy
here largely depends on the ability to sustain economic growth
rates.

It does not imply complete dependence on the factor of growing
welfare; there are other points here, which might have even more
significance. Alongside the flourishing price situation, the
Russian political system of the “zero years” model was functioning
quite successfully, resting upon the high popularity of the
incumbent government. Both factors are significant, but popularity
is of primary importance and plays a large role.

The ratings of the top authority have essentially been (both during
Putin’s presidency and the current “tandemocracy”) the ratings of
expectations and hope. Today, despite the dramatic fall in the
indices of citizens’ opinions of the socio-economic situation, the
level of confidence in the government is still high. To be more
precise, it is high in a new way, because the ratings are still
based on expectations and hope, but the novelty is that the
government now must ensure the least painful way of pulling out of
the crisis.

In addition, the government would be expected to secure a fair
anti-crisis strategy and its effectiveness. The margin of political
strength and stability of ratings are determined not by the
intensity of economic problems, but the perception by the nation of
whether or not the anti-crisis strategy is fair. A protest can
flare up if this bid for justness is ignored. As for economic
problems, the state is rather expected not to interfere with
people’s efforts to survive.

This situation is quite traditional for the modern Russian society,
because the requirements for order and justice in people’s
mentality have played and continue to play the leading role. At the
turn of the 1990s, it was obvious because of the war in Chechnya,
the threats to the country’s integrity and the prevailing public
resentment of the results of the “decade of privatization and
reforms” as unfair. The “public accord” at the turn of the 1990s
and the “zero years” was made between a large part of the
population and the top authorities in circumvention of a
considerable portion of elites, so that the top officials, backed
by the masses and high ratings could act in their own right to
“restrain the modern aristocracy.” This explains the overly
positive attitude by the larger portion of the public to the
infringement upon the rights of regional elites or oligarchs.

An addendum to the “public accord” covering better welfare, made
during the late “fat years,” was certainly motivated by an exchange
of political rights for a better standard of living. This is not
surprising. Given a very low level of confidence in market
institutions and economic and political competition in the Russian
society, the main demand to top government has been a paternalistic
attitude, providing for a large public share in annuity and its
subsequent distribution in the society. This would prevent the
elites from limiting “ordinary people’s” access to the deriving of
profit from annuity flows. Whether or not this situation has
changed much during the crisis is a big question.

However, there is a factor that can considerably influence the
social dynamics and sentiments; this is the factor of time. Nearly
all sociological polls show that the society is ready for a crisis
lasting another year or so. There is a certain margin of strength
of government reserve funds, accumulated reserves and adaptation of
households to tide Russia over this period.

The prospect of “a three-year crisis” until 2012, though viewed by
the authorities as a benchmark of political strategies, would seem
a very bad scenario, from the point of view of economic and social
costs.

In effect, the hidden hope for “a short-term crisis” still prevails
in the public mind and the outlook cultivated by elites. If these
hopes come true, the post-crisis Russia of 2010-2011 will differ
little from what we saw just before 2007-2008.

In the political sense, the country, led by the incumbent
authorities to the victory over the crisis, will be preparing for
relatively quiet elections. It is important that the very issue of
the main candidate to the presidential post in 2012 will be
addressed outside the framework of the crisis. The theme of
modernization and other novelties will continue to be topical, but
these will again be implemented amidst the titanic struggle against
the inertial “let-everything-run-its-natural-course” logic, and in
the nearly same configuration of political, clan and group social
interests we have now.

In these conditions, it is the possibility of a longer and deeper
crisis that increasingly becomes the decisive factor in further
development of the situation in the country and its sharp turns. An
infinite duration of the crisis is the worst hitch for both elites
and the population. If the “long crisis” in Russia not only becomes
a reality but also sours the mood of the elites and the population,
it may bring about a “radical turn” in the socio-political
situation and actions by various political players.

In that event, a dramatic change in the political agenda and
economic policy, as well as a reshuffle of elites will become
possible. Early federal elections cannot be ruled out, either. And
then the victory will go to a political force or a leader that will
come forward to state their position precisely at the moment when
the hand of the barometer of public and elite’s sentiment inclines
towards the segment marked “severe and drawn-out crisis.”