Ever since he returned the crown to Vladimir Putin, in a speech effectively citing him as a far better president for Russia, Dmitry Medvedev has been something of a figure of fun and pathos. With his political downfall looming, though, his fate may offer clues about Russia’s political future.
Medvedev’s greatest virtue has always been that he is not threatening, either to Putin or to the rest of the Russian elite. Putin installed him as place-holding proxy president in 2008 precisely for that reason, and while around 2010 it looked as if he was contemplating actually challenging his de facto boss, Putin had rightly judged his man, and ultimately Medvedev backed down.
As part of the deal, he returned to the prime ministership, in effect becoming Putin’s administrator-in-chief and scapegoat supreme. Triumphs, needless to say, are ascribed to the president’s leadership, failures to Medvedev’s inability to make the government machine work as it should.
Meanwhile, although Medvedev may have relatively little authority over the big beasts of the cabinet and wider political scene, at least he has relatively few enemies. Unlike, for example, former Presidential Administration chief Sergei Ivanov, he is a comfortable figure, whose bite is no more serious than his bark.
It may sound like a thankless position, but as presidential contender Alexei Navalny’s recent video expose 'Don’t Call Him Dimon' demonstrated, it has not proven unrewarding. His properties seem to range from an 18th century palace in St Petersburg to vineyards in Italy, and his tastes run to expensive imported sneakers and smartwatches.
This fateful video seems to have sealed Medvedev’s fate: it is not just that he has been shown to be corrupt, it is that in the process ‘Dimon’ has become symbolic of the public’s growing dissatisfaction with an elite and a government that seems as ineffective as it is self-serving. Besides which, he has of late demonstrated himself to be politically tone deaf, from his infamous admission to a pensioner that “there’s no money, but hang in there” to his sole response when protests were held across the country calling for his dismissal: a tweet that the day was “not bad. I did some skiing”. The smiley face he added just epitomised the out of touch insubstantiality for which he has become known.
In the immediate term, he is probably not going anywhere, as Putin cannot appear to be swayed by protests. The chance of him lasting to next year’s presidential poll and the consequent change of government, though, look slender, especially as he is definitely an electoral liability now.
The trouble is, there is a clear sense of unease within the elite about the direction of policy. If anything, the looming elections – even though there is no question but that Putin will win – are actually concentrating people’s minds on a post-Putin Russia, as it is quietly asked whether the 64-year-old will want or be able to last a full six-year term.
Whoever is appointed will thus inevitably be considered as a potential successor, maybe even a direct challenger. The candidate will also inherit an unenviable situation, with the power of the prime ministership and cabinet largely hollowed out, real strategic power abstracted to the Presidential Administration, and a difficult and intractable policy agenda overdue to be addressed.
Who replaces Medvedev will tell us much about Putin’s priorities and the choice will influence how the government addresses present political, economic, social and geopolitical challenges.
It could be a technocrat chosen to emphasise a competent and practical response, yet with little hint that this is a potential future president. Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu would probably be too forceful and popular a choice. Instead it is more likely to be one of the senior economic managers, such as First Deputy Premier Igor Shuvalov, Deputy Premier Yuri Trutnev or, an even more interesting choice, central bank chair Elvira Nabiullina.
This would have the virtue of emphasising that the prime ministerial position is essentially that of the tsar’s steward, and suggest no serious political challenge to Putin. However, it would inevitably also raise expectations of meaningful economic and administrative reform, expectations which would equally inevitably be dashed. After all, this would require cutting the snarled thicket of corruption, clientelism, embezzlement and hydrocarbon-dependency which has grown up around and through Putin’s Kremlin. No prime minister has the power to do that without the president’s unswerving and unstinting support, and there is no evidence Putin is willing to turn his back on his closest (and richest) cronies.
Given that Putin seems increasingly to be elevating not peers but dependent mediocrities, he might instead hand the premiership to one of his homunculi. Anton Vaino, the current head of the Presidential Administration, has managed to rise high without a trace; maybe he could likewise ghost his way into the Moscow White House? Conversely, his first deputy, Sergei Kiriyenko, was briefly prime minister back in 1998, but has shrunk in political stature since, to the point when he might be small enough for Putin to consider.
In this case, the hollowing out of the institutions of state in Russia will be complete. Behind the facade of a modern bureaucratic state, with a cabinet, ministers and agencies, will be something hyper-presidential, positively monarchical. This would help buttress Putin’s personal authority, at least in the short term, but it would do nothing to address the urgent need for effective management and reform.
The alternative would be to opt for a powerful political manager, such as former deputy Presidential Administration head, current State Duma speaker and Kremlin legbreaker-in-chief Vyacheslav Volodin. However, this would present the prime minister as a president-in-waiting, and a powerful and forceful one that that, especially when he knows where all the (metaphorical – probably) bodies are buried.
Rather, if Putin is going to use this as a chance to appoint someone whom he is grooming, or testing, as a possible successor, it will probably come as a surprise. One of the reasons in the past for keeping Medvedev in office was precisely to avoid even the suggestion that anyone could replace the indispensable incumbent. However, there is a growing consensus in Moscow that while there is no serious question as to whether Putin will stand in – and win – the election in 2018, he would, ideally, like to anoint a successor during or at the end of his next term. The president who famously likened himself to a galley slave might prefer to hand over the oars and enjoy some time sunning himself on deck instead.
There is, however, at present no candidate who possesses the necessary mix of stature, seasoning, and above all subservience to suit Putin’s needs. To be sure, one could be elevated and crafted in perhaps twelve months, rising from a governorship to a ministerial position to the premiership, buoyed on a hot wind of adulatory press coverage. But not in twelve weeks, which means that Medvedev might get a stay of execution.
So if Medvedev keeps his job, but we start hearing about some hitherto unknown wunderkind, perhaps from Putin’s bodyguard, or the Presidential Administration, then it may be time to start opening a book on quite when Putin plans to stand down.
Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.