A large-scale campaign directed against Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is underway in the Russian media. It is difficult to say who is behind it—Medvedev’s opponents include the security services, liberals, Putinists, and even his own former backers. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies and an IMR advisor, ponders the Russian premier’s political future.
Last year, the campaign against Dmitri Medvedev was rather haphazard, and did not go beyond The Day that was Lost , a film about his failure during the 2008 Russia–Georgia war. In late 2012–early 2013, the drive against the prime minister became more of a “carpet bombing”. Several examples come to mind—and each of them has dealt a severe blow to Medvedev’s reputation.
First, there was an Internet leak about the activities of Medvedev’s public relations team, detailing the dealings between Natalya Timakova, the premier’s press secretary, and prominent opposition bloggers. Given that many of these bloggers are members of the opposition’s Coordinating Council, a fifth of which, according to Gazeta.ru, is under criminal investigation, potential cooperation between Medvedev’s team and these people could almost be viewed as treason. In such context, Medvedev’s public relations team appears to be behind a conspiracy against Putin’s inner circle, seeking to discredit, among others, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Gunvor shareholder Gennady Timchenko. The authors of the leak intended to kill two birds with one stone by striking a blow at Medvedev and his entourage, and “exposing” opposition activists who allegedly take money from Timakova and her husband, Alexander Budberg.
It is important to note that the anti-Medvedev campaign was initiated by a pressure group either within the regime or close to it. The aim is to associate the prime minister with the extra-systemic liberal opposition, while also portraying him as a puppet in the hands of his own advisors. What could be more humiliating for a former head of state?
Secondly, a new film entitled Game at Giveaway was released online in January. It concerns then-President Dmitri Medvedev’s position on Libya during the consideration of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which de facto paved the way to military intervention. In many respects, this film replicates the style of The Day that was Lost, which was about Medvedev’s indecisiveness and incompetence during the Georgia war: the former president was declared politically responsible for the death of Russian peacekeepers because of the delay in launching a military attack. It is worth recalling that, according to anonymous sources, The Day that was Lost was authorized by Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Sergei Ivanov, who wished to discredit his former opponent.
Analysts have begun to notice a considerable difference in the television coverage of Putin and Medvedev.
The authors of Game at Giveaway accuse Medvedev of betraying Russia’s national interests and deliberately caving in to the U.S. and France. The film talks about Russian military-industrial enterprises that suffered as a result of Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow. The video was published in the name of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, though it was soon established that the YouTube account was a fake. The film’s authors compare the damage caused by Medvedev’s abstention on Resolution 1973 with the damage supposedly caused by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, whose name in Russia is associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin once called it the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and one must admit that a significant number of Russians share this opinion. Game at Giveaway calls for Medvedev to be court-marshaled.
It is important to recall that it was the Libyan issue that caused the sharpest disagreement between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. On March 21, 2011, then-Premier Putin declared that UNSC Resolution 1973 “reminds me of a medieval call for a crusade, when somebody called on somebody else to go to a certain place to liberate something.” He also called the document “deficient and flawed.” Then-President Medvedev reacted to these statements at once, allowing himself—for the first time—to criticize Putin directly. During a news conference, Medvedev stressed that one must be “as careful as possible in one’s assessments. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations—such as ‘crusade’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse compared to what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.” The president added that he did not believe the resolution to be “wrong,” because it “generally reflects our understanding of what is going on in Libya.” As if emphasizing his right to determine foreign and defense policy, Medvedev wore a jacket with the seal of the Commander-in-Chief.
It is hard to believe that only two years ago, Medvedev showed such political audacity. In just six months (between September 2011 and March 2012), Putin managed to turn an ambitious “commander-in-chief” into a political corpse. It is worth noting that during Medvedev’s four-year presidency, Putin behaved in a reserved manner and did not respond to his locum tenens’ public moves. He certainly knew that the situation would change, and that the ball would soon be in his court.
Thirdly, analysts have begun to notice a considerable difference in the television coverage of Putin and Medvedev. “National television channels were apparently given appropriate instructions. It was recommended that they broadcast fewer events with Medvedev’s participation, particularly his visits to the regions. If a news report on the prime minister is unavoidable, unattractive facial expressions and unfortunate statements should be emphasized,” affirmed the newspaper Argumenty nedeli. “By contrast with such an image of the prime minister, Putin is presented as a wise and sagacious manager who cares about common people and criticizes negligent ministers and officials. Medvedev is apparently already perplexed at such coverage on the ‘telly.’ His press service has been trying to discover the reason.”
By early February, this subject was taken up in the print media. The newspaper Izvestia, directed by “Kremlin pit bull” Aram Gabrelyanov, who was hired by Yuri Kovalchuk (a Putin friend who is also known as his “wallet”), accused Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalya Timakova, of persecuting the “free press.” It is worth mentioning that Gabrelyanov gained notoriety by leaking compromising information on the opposition through his Lifenews website. Under his leadership, the once-respectable Izvestia is turning into a hardline pro-Putin force. This implies that the newspaper is also turning against Medvedev. In a recent editorial, Izvestia claimed that Timakova, in the presence of several officials, promised to have the security services investigate Izvestia’s access to official government correspondence. The government is apparently displeased with the fact that correspondence between various ministries and departments on the one hand, and the presidential administration and the prime minister’s office on the other, is occasionally leaked to the newspaper. More specifically, this concerns a publication that referred to the Kremlin's intention to rank Medvedev’s ministers by their inefficiency. There is no doubt that this was a leak directed against the premier, and Izvestia took an active part in it.
These incidents lead to important conclusions. First, an anti-Medvedev campaign is clearly underway in the pro-Kremlin media. This campaign is polycentric: Medvedev is opposed by various different factions, but they all want the same thing—to weaken him politically or have him dismissed. Their motives are also different. For the security services, Medvedev is an obstacle: according to various sources, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russian Technologies State Corporation, has prime ministerial ambitions of his own. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who would be acceptable both to Putin’s administration and to the security services, has also been mentioned as Medvedev’s potential replacement. Liberals, meanwhile, consider Medvedev too weak to be able to make any decisions. Technocrats are not pleased with the prime minister either. Among the latter group are Rusnano CEO Anatoly Chubais and Sberbank President German Gref; both have recently ridiculed Medvedev’s ministers for their incompetence and passion for propaganda. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who still keeps the premier at arm’s length despite the latter’s attempts to end their conflict, also expects Medvedev to be dismissed in the near future.
Medvedev had an opportunity to become a real head of state—but he remained loyal to Putin, and is now being politically destroyed as he capitulates to his boss.
The second conclusion is that the ruling elite, which consists of very different interest groups, clans and ideological factions, has de facto recognized Vladimir Putin as the sole leader of the country—regardless of what they think about him. Dmitri Medvedev is no longer considered even as a technocratic premier, although he initially headed the cabinet as a political leader. Medvedev leads the ruling party, he is a former president, and he once showed Putin his place—but all his political resources have evaporated, making him the weakest technocratic premier in modern Russian history. The main difference with his predecessors, Mikhail Fradkov and Viktor Zubkov, is that Medvedev is no longer considered a member of Putin’s close circle.
Finally, the third conclusion: Putin’s decision to manage the government directly means that he has lost confidence in his prime minister. The expanded January 31 cabinet meeting chaired by Putin was proof of that. The Constitution does give the president the right to preside over cabinet meetings, but this format has been used very rarely—usually for end-of-year meetings, but never to discuss the strategy or have the prime minister report to the president. The Kremlin is placing the cabinet under its direct control: Putin is planning to meet with ministers regularly, making them answerable to him. A special working group was set up in the Kremlin under former Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina; this group will supervise the government’s implementation of Putin’s post-election decrees. The cabinet’s present position can be compared with a patient’s vegetative state. It is only a matter of time for Putin to discontinue the tube feedings.
This, however, has not yet happened—and will not happen in the nearest future. Vladimir Putin still needs Dmitri Medvedev for three reasons: the president is afraid that Medvedev might join the opposition, causing a split in the elites; he wants to make the current government responsible for unpopular social reforms; and he promised Medvedev that he would keep him as premier until the end of his presidential term. But these motives are fading away as the anti-Medvedev coalition strengthens, and as lobbyists continue to push for the government’s dismissal. In six months’ time, Medvedev could become so weak that political risks attached to his dismissal will no longer matter. Putin will be able to forget his promise and form an even more technocratic government that would create fewer political problems and would carry out social reforms quicker and more effectively. Medvedev will sooner or later become the victim of his own indecisiveness. He had an opportunity to become a real head of state—but he remained loyal to Putin, and is now being politically destroyed as he capitulates to his boss.