Is Dmitry Medvedev ready to stand up to Vladimir Putin’?

Vladimir Putin’s ruthless control of the Kremlin looks set to be tested, writes Anne Applebaum.

This week, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, said he might stand for re-election in 2012. A day later, Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, said he might oppose him. In any other European country, this would be run-of-the-mill political news. In Russia, where politics remain opaque and democracy is manipulated, it’s a sensation: open competition between two national leaders would be unprecedented.

More to the point, open competition between Medvedev and Putin would defy everything we think we know about the two. Until now, their relationship has been best defined by this Moscow anecdote: “There are two factions in the Russian elite, the Medvedev faction and the Putin faction – but Medvedev doesn’t know to which faction he belongs.”

That’s meant to be a joke – but not many find it funny. Like so many Russian jokes, it simply mirrors a very weird reality. Ever since he became a candidate for president in 2008, Medvedev’s role has been unclear. Putin appointed Medvedev to the presidency after deciding, in accordance with the constitution, not to run for a third consecutive term himself (though it seems he is eligible to run again now). Medvedev’s presidential campaign was a farce. He made but a single public appearance; his only genuine opponent was barred from running; the media was so biased in his favour that most election observers refused to monitor the campaign at all.

Since his election, Medvedev has played a distinctly subservient role. Those who meet both men together have said that Putin dominates the conversation, while Medvedev literally carries his briefcase. At key moments – during the Russian invasion of Georgia, for example – Putin has appeared on television to address the nation, while Medvedev has remained deep in the background.

Even when Medvedev appeared to contradict Putin, most observers assumed that this, too, was part of his role: he was thought to be a Potemkin leader, a “democrat” who would change nothing but whose presence would reassure those who wanted a more open or more economically liberal Russia.

Still, Medvedev has held meetings with some of the Kremlin’s bravest and often persecuted opponents, including the editors of Novaya Gazeta, the one newspaper that openly criticises the establishment and reports on corruption. He has praised Ekho Moskvy, the most independent radio station in the capital. He has even declared that “Stalin will not be forgiven for anything”, which directly contradicts the rehabilitation that began under Putin. But many in Moscow assumed that this, too, was mere window-dressing, a gesture designed to prevent foreign investors from being scared off by a Russian state that has, in practice, become more authoritarian, more unpredictable and more arbitrary – if not exactly Stalinist – during the three years of Medvedev’s presidency.

Yet along the way, it seems that something else has happened: whether he meant to do so or not, Medvedev really has become a spokesman, or at least a symbol, for an important part of the Russian elite. Of course, the modern dissidents – the democracy activists, the crusading journalists – want him to succeed. But a portion of the wealthy business class has also now become dissatisfied with the status quo. The ambitious fear that their path upwards will be blocked by complacent bureaucrats. The successful fear that their children will have no chance in the corrupt educational system. The rich fear their money will be confiscated: anxious oligarchs have sent almost £13  billion abroad in the first quarter of this year alone.

Others are pulling up stakes themselves. Until recently, many wealthy Russians sent their wives and children to live in the UK, on the grounds that they would be better educated – and better protected from kidnappers and thieves. Some now speak of following their families to London. Many were spooked by the unexpectedly harsh conclusion to the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil billionaire, who received a 14-year jail sentence because he refused to pay proper financial and political homage to Putin.

I cannot give you any numbers, but in recent months, parts of the Russian establishment may have begun to hope that Medvedev will at least cease to be a puppet president, and instead become a real leader. Perhaps he has been emboldened by their desire. That would explain why he criticised Putin openly at the beginning of the Libya campaign: when the prime minister called the bombardment of Gaddafi’s troops a “crusade”, the president said the word was “unacceptable”. It may also explain why Medvedev has proposed changing the law to make corporations more transparent – and why he has forced Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s henchmen, to resign from the board of Rosneft, the oil giant that is trying to go into partnership with BP.

Or it might not explain anything at all. The Moscow Times yesterday quoted a political analyst who called this latest round of sparring “a smokescreen of massive proportions”: all of this, he claimed, was yet another game designed to prevent further capital flight and to reassure nervous foreign investors.

In the strange world of Russian politics, no one can confirm or deny that kind of statement, because the rules of Russian politics are unwritten – and there are no conventions or precedents to follow. No one understands the true relationship between Putin and Medvedev, possibly not even the two men themselves. And until the next presidential election is over, no one can predict who will stand, or how it will be conducted – let alone who will win.

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