MOSCOW BLOG: Shadow boxing and squawking chickens

By bne IntelliNews October 29, 2010

Ben Aris in Moscow -

The art of Kremlinology is back. In the old days, foreign correspondents wanting to know if there was some crisis in play would drive down Novy Arbat in central Moscow to see if the lights in the Ministry of Defence were on after 6:00 pm.

In other words, cut off from any creditable source of information on what was happening inside the Kremlin, correspondents were essentially clueless about what was really happening. Some 20 years on, and not much has changed.

Much has been made of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's sacking of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and it has widely been taken as Medvedev's first independent action that makes him look presidential. bne has followed this line too, as he really did look presidential, especially in his comments to the press after the announcement, when he dropped his "I have lost confidence," bomb on the Beekeeper.

However, there is another explanation that fits the facts equally well. I am not sure if it's true, but certainly some in Moscow believe it, and it does answer a key and unresolved question: why was Luzhkov ousted now?

Backed into corner

Since 2004, Moscow mayors have no longer been elected, they are appointed. Luzhkov's term was due to expire next year, so really there was no need to sack him now; far simpler and less disruptive to wait a bit and simply not reappoint him.

Of course, many have said that Luzhkov badly miscalculated, pushing Medvedev into a corner with his strident comments on how he would never go. According to this theory, Medvedev was forced to act or lose face.

However, another explanation is that Medvedev was already in trouble following Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's summer PR high jinks, including a road trip in a yellow Lada from Kalina through Siberia. The stunt worked brilliantly, but the side effect was to weaken Medvedev, who tried to follow up with a lame copy of the stunt, driving classic cars across the Ukrainian border with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a few weeks later.

Most people (Russians included) believe that Putin remains in full control, but if Medvedev loses all credibility as president, then he becomes useless, especially in relation to his mission to oversee the "modernisation" of the country. A better explanation of the whole Luzhkov episode then, is that Putin engineered it to shore up Medvedev's image through the next 18 months before the next presidential elections.

This explanation actually fits the facts very nicely. As opposition leader Boris Nemtsov asked rhetorically to bne in a recent interview, "what has Medvedev actually done while in power?" The answer is: almost nothing.

He has changed the constitution to extend the president's term to six years; he swapped an extension of the Black Sea Fleet's lease on the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol for a $40bn gas price discount; he recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as countries; and he sacked Luzhkov. You could add "police reform" to this list, but there aren't really any results there. Indeed, Medvedev himself admits that this is not working. Not really a very impressive record given all the modernisation talk.

Although Medvedev does seem sincere about deepening Russia's civil society, and believes in what he says, the bottom line is that at the moment he looks a bit like a squawking chicken's head separated from the body politic, which is running around in its own direction.

For the record, I believe that this is actually part of the plan. When Putin was choosing his successor, the option was between his younger liberal colleague Medvedev and old-school hard-line Sergei Ivanov, who is also a personal friend. Putin doesn't make impulsive choices, and as he clearly has a plan that runs to 2020, I can't believe that he plumped for Medvedev without having worked out in detail how the following four years to the 2012 elections would go.

I believe that providing the country is growing, society is calm and things are more-or-less going according to Putin's plan, he will stay on as PM and leave Medvedev as president. Real political reform won't be seen until the after the presidential election, but once over, there's a fair chance things will start moving a lot more quickly. The Luzhkov affair then could viewed as fine tuning to maintain Medvedev's role in the plan.

The edge

Ironically, much of the same thinking can be applied to Yanukovych. He was widely seen as Russia's man when he took over, but the Ukrainian president has gone out of his way to woo the EU. The trouble is, Brussels has done nothing to accommodate Ukraine, which has taken the pragmatic option of getting into bed again with Russia, which is offering real money and real deals.

However, some people in Kyiv believe that Yanukovych's whole EU alliance rhetoric is a pose designed to give give him a bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia. Yet, as the relationship with Europe doesn't actually exist in any meaningful form, Yanukovych is in an extremely weak position.

The bottom line is that he really is Russia's man, in the sense that he believes Russia is his only real partner in Europe, and all the talk is purely for show. The fact he has given away several important mining assets to Russian oligarchs as part of the gas deal, at the cost of local business leaders, makes this a more likely fit than the picture of a "pragmatic Ukrainian nationalist" that he is trying to paint.

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