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Will Putin-Medvedev tandem prompt two-party system?

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13:45 30/03/2011

Russia is by no means the only country now mired in controversy over Libya. U.S. President Barack Obama is also battling his conservative generals over their Libya strategy. Germany is split: even some politicians in the ruling coalition argue that Germany ought to support the UN resolution.

 

In that sense, Russia fits into the global picture perfectly. The resolution was indeed compiled in a rush, because it had to be adopted fast, and is certainly not flawless. That is why the action it outlines seems to differ from the action the anti-Gaddafi coalition is taking. Debates over the interpretation of the resolution wording are raging in many countries, and one certainly gets the sense both that Russia is involved in this discourse and that it has different views on the events unfolding across North Africa.

 

Nor am I suggesting that this explicit disagreement between the Russian president and prime minister was an act. I am certain that both were sincere in what they said. Putin probably did not expect the resolution to be followed so quickly with military action in Libya; hence his overemotional reaction. But it was Medvedev who made the decision to support the resolution; therefore, he could not keep silent. If he hadn’t responded, the media would have said the president is shying away from this criticism, rather than confronting it. So, I would not say that Russia faces a dramatic schism in government, but this difference of opinion is interesting nevertheless.

 

Russia has two different modernization strategies, one is liberal and the other is rather authoritarian; they do not contradict each other and are being implemented in parallel.

 

The first policy allows active liberal-minded people outside the government to get involved in policy-making.

 

The second one doesn’t; neither Putin nor Medvedev can reverse that even if they wanted to.

 

Medvedev is playing a liberal politician, while Putin is a more conservative leader. These two attitudes are reflected in Russia’s foreign policy.

 

Medvedev is focused on building ties with the West and does not favor a rapprochement with China. Putin, by contrast, is trying to put the brakes on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Neither does he support broad-ranging liberal reforms in Russia. He keeps his trump card – China – at the ready, so as to be able to adjust this western-looking foreign policy if it doesn’t benefit Russia. The two different strategies are by no means mutually exclusive, but that said, they do sometimes clash.

 

The emblem of Russia is a double-headed eagle: one head looking one way, the other in the opposite direction. Medvedev and Putin can now be seen as having a similar function to these two symbolic heads: facing in different directions, but at the same time demonstrating the country’s might.

 

In the high-profile debate surrounding the rights and wrongs of the Libyan revolution, Putin is largely winning at home, and Medvedev in the West. Putin put his finger on the attitude most prevalent among Russians: 80%-90% are outraged by not being asked their opinion on bombing Libya, as though Russia did not exist. Neither the ruling elite nor ordinary Russians seem to like this. Medvedev, on the other hand, has been out there, forging a new policy toward the West since the conflict with Georgia [over South Ossetia]. He has seen relationships with Germany, France, and the United States improve and naturally does not want to ruin this or slow it down. That is why he will do everything in his power to defend the UN resolution on Libya.

 

I believe this tandem could lead to the dawn of pluralism in Russia. Pluralism here does not necessarily mean diarchy. Having alternative opinions at the top is good, and it is something Russia never had before. Whenever dissent emerged within the government, it invariably grew into an open struggle for power that led to the defeat of one or both parties.

 

This tandem, however, has been reflecting two parallel policies for almost three years now, which is good, because it means Russia is becoming accustomed to pluralism. The only concern here is that this situation somewhat weakens the role of president, and in Russia, with its presidential form of government, it is the president that makes the final decision. A strong prime minister, like Putin, could shatter the balance in the constitution.

 

It is important that the president’s role should not be limited to symbolic or secondary functions. Russia desperately needs a strong presidency, at least for another decade, until it is safe to adopt a parliamentary form of government. This tandem cannot run the country forever and must develop into something else.

 

It would be ideal if Russia were to get used to seeing two such different alternative approaches at the highest levels of government. If it does, it could then experiment, perhaps trying to position its political heavyweights into two different parties. They would not necessarily have to be led by Putin and Medvedev, but having two popular parties would certainly benefit democracy in Russia.

 

Alexander Rahr is Program Director of Berthold Beitz Centre at the German Council on Foreign Relations

 

 

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