Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Will Medvedev Challenge Putin in 2012?
Russia Profile
Vladimir Frolov

With presidential elections in Russia
less than two years away, opinion polls show that President Dmitry
Medvedev is rapidly catching up with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in
popularity. Recent polls show a virtual dead heat between them. So could
Medvedev think the unthinkable and challenge his mentor at the ballot
box in 2012? Will Medvedev have the political resources, the support
base and, most importantly, the guts to challenge the man who brought
him to the pinnacle of Russian power? How would such a challenge play
out in Russia’s clannish politics? How would the Russian elites react to
the need to make a political choice that could be fatal?

Prime minister Putin is still the more popular of Russia’s ruling
duumvirate. Polls conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation found that
President Dmitry Medvedev is trusted by 60 percent, and Putin by 67
percent of voters. At the same time, Levada Center polls indicate that
trust in Medvedev is growing. The number of people who believe that
Medvedev conducts an independent policy has doubled in the past two

A report published in Russian Newsweek revealed that confidential
opinion polls run by the Public Opinion Foundation show a virtual dead
heat between Putin and Medvedev in the event of a face-off at the ballot
box. Thirty two percent said they would vote for Putin and 31 percent
for Medvedev. Back in January 2009, 46 percent were prepared to vote for
Putin while only 20 percent would vote for Medvedev. Today, were both
of them to run, there would be no clear favorite, much less a

Medvedev is getting stronger. People have become used to thinking of him
as their president, and are gaining confidence in his ability to rule
the nation. They are increasingly comfortable with him as a leader. They
are ever more enthusiastic about his agenda of modernization and they
are thrilled with his vigilante approach to justice.

Still, the proportion of people who believe that he and Putin rule
together has not changed in the past two years. Medvedev is still not
seen as an entirely independent figure. Some Russian pundits
dismissively call Medvedev “a guy who doesn’t know what he will be doing
in two years.”

Medvedev’s recent efforts to reach out to the United Russia party
indicate that he is not prepared to stake his political fortunes on
other political parties in Russia. Before Medvedev’s recent meeting with
United Russia it had been possible to assume that he might run for
president in 2012 supported by some other political party or coalition.
The opposition was counting on it. The Communist Party (KPRF) sponsored a
“socialist modernization” concept drawn up for Medvedev, while Just
Russia established a youth movement with the telling name of “Forward,
Russia!” But the president chose United Russia, and made his choice
known. He thus made the worst-case scenario of an open partisan battle
with Putin and the United Russia party unlikely.

Instead, Medvedev and his long-time aide Vladislav Surkov seem to be
focused on cultivating a strong movement in support of Medvedev’s
modernization agenda within United Russia, working to recruit the most
dynamic elements of society to their “modernization camp” inside the
ruling party.

The president knows that he could not really afford an open conflict
with United Russia, and he is working to build his own base of
supporters within the party. This, in time, could help him deny Putin
his monopoly of control over the largest political party during the

But is Medvedev really preparing to challenge Putin, were the latter to
decide to return to the presidency in 2012? Will Medvedev have the
political resources, the support base and, most importantly, the guts to
challenge the man who brought him to the pinnacle of Russian power? How
would such a challenge play out in Russia’s clannish politics? How
would the Russian elites react to the need to make a political choice
that could be fatal? How would the people respond to open competition
between the two principal Russian politicians? How would the West react
and respond in such a scenario? Would it back Medvedev or Putin, or stay
out of the game altogether?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society
Institute, San Francisco, CA:

The structure of the question is quite curious. Given that in 2012,
president Medvedev would be an incumbent running for re-election, one
could suppose a challenge by Putin, but not the other way around.

The reality is that neither gentleman is currently running for election
and it would be frivolity or insanity for any serious politician to
declare his or her candidacy so far ahead of the elections. Marginal
politicians like the late Harold Stassen in the United States, or some
of the leaders of the pocket-size parties of Russia, may declare
themselves so early – but such candidacies are not serious.

Opinion poll results obtained two years ahead of an event are
meaningless. Some of the polling organizations referenced in the
introduction may be following political agendas – biased pollsters who
pretend to generate “impartial” results are a commonly used electoral

The periodic mention of a contest between the two leading Russian
political figures invokes smiles. Instead of debating the merits of
hypothetical scenarios oriented two years into the future (which in
politics is equivalent to a lifetime away), some observers are
questioning the motives and psychodynamics of the question itself.

In some opinions, the electoral juxtaposition of Medvedev and Putin is a
construct dreamt up by the opponents of the two men who themselves have
no political traction and no viable candidate. The opponents posit a
hypothetical competition between both men – whom they find equally
odious – with the hope that a destructive contest will damage both. In
brief, a “divide et impera” scenario.

Or perhaps (and more probably) the gossip of a possible contest between
presidential candidates Medvedev and Putin in 2012 is simply idle
speculation of the kind for which Russians are quite famous. One is
reminded of interminable, inconclusive and pointless speculation by
Soviet Russians in their kitchens, over tea or more flammable liquids.

There is a very plausible alternative, which the hypothetic electoral
scenarios prefer to ignore. One can readily envision a likely outcome
where the current governance configuration in Russia is maintained for
yet another presidential cycle. This may be the most attractive formula
for Russia’s electorate and may garner maximum support.

The perception of both men as being driven by exclusive personal
ambition and by lust for a monopoly on power is inaccurate and
simplistic. One reason for such an erroneous perception is a lack of
understanding of the true nature of executive leadership in any system
of governance. Even monarchs do not rule alone. Some form of delegation
of authority and of power sharing is inevitable. Therefore, regardless
of who is the commander-in-chief in Russia, his or her power will be
shared with Russia’s prime minister and other political, cultural and
even religious leaders. This is true for every country, at all times –
from classical Athens and Rome, through the Middle Ages, and into the
modern world. People who have no executive experience do not readily
understand this reality of governance, and imagine that one would or
could pursue maximum power for themselves, supposing governmental
dynamics to be a “zero-sum game.”

For a more refreshing approach we should accept as accurate the often
repeated statements by both Medvedev and Putin that they collaborate
quite well. We should also note that Russia’s need for governance is so
vast that it can satisfy (or overwhelm) even the most power-hungry
politician. We have no tangible evidence, no situation or even a
gesture, that suggests otherwise.

To the above we should add the axiom that any speculation about
political events 24 months in the future is fundamentally not serious
political science.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor,
Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was recently quoted as saying that
it was too early to predict his political future – in other words,
whether he intends to seek the Russian presidency in 2012. If he chooses
not to pursue a return to the presidency, there would be no need for
President Dmitry Medvedev to “challenge him.” And the very idea presumes
that Putin wants his old job back – don’t ask me why he would.

For the moment, the power-sharing arrangement seems to be working to the
satisfaction of both individuals. President Medvedev is getting
critical experience as head of state, but Putin seems to have veto power
over any policy initiatives. In the near term, this is likely to
continue, since Medvedev seems unwilling to defy his predecessor on any
major issue. This arrangement probably would not survive another
economic downturn (or even some major scandals), but just how long it
will continue is unpredictable.

There are simply too many variables. The prospects for a healthy
economic recovery are uncertain. Even if the Russian economy as a whole
bounces back, it is unclear that the fruits of recovery will be enjoyed
by a large share of the country’s population, rather than only a small
percentage. Of course, same can be said about the EU countries and the
United States, but at least those countries provide their citizens with a
better safety net. It is unclear who will be blamed if there is not a
strong recovery in Russia.

Little progress has been made in establishing the rule of law within the
Russian judicial system. A recent study conducted by the Russian
Supreme Court indicated that of the cases it surveyed, 40 of the
decisions contained errors. Was this the result of incompetence or
corruption, including the improper exercise of political influence?
Meanwhile, pre-trial detention of non-dangerous suspects continues,
despite new legislation providing for bail in the case of economic

The anti-corruption campaign seems stymied, though it is unclear whether
this is due to passive resistance in the bureaucratic, legislative,
judicial spheres, Putin’s unwillingness to tame the personnel working
there, or Medvedev’s own lack of will or ability to effectively
implement his policies.

And that’s not all. Recent terrorist acts, combined with problems around
the preparations for the Sochi Olympics, will also play a role for how
2012 plays out.

Igor Torbakov, Ph.D., Senior
Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki:

Curiously, the very way in which Frolov frames the discussion appears to
reflect the long-standing habit of most Russian pundits to perceive any
significant societal change as being the result of the change of
personalities at the top of Russia’s “vertical of power.” Not so long
ago Russia’s chattering classes were obsessed with the “2008 problem.”
But time flies fast, and now the “2012 problem” looms large. Yet over
the last decade or so, the nature of Russia’s mildly authoritarian
regime – otherwise known as phony or imitation democracy – remains
largely unchanged. And there are no grounds to believe that it is going
to change significantly in 2012, whatever exotic combinations the
present tandem might come up with.

Again, what is important to understand is that the most vital interest
of Russia’s rulers is to perpetuate their power, and this means
preserving the present political regime. In fact, the post-2008 Kremlin
“tandemocracy” is the latest modification of the system of authoritarian
and personalist power that proved to be quite useful in the time of the
severe financial crisis. Russia’s duumvirs appeared to be quite adept
at making good use of what Dmitry Medvedev aptly called the “stylistic
differences” between the two leaders: the polite manners and liberal
rhetoric of the Russian president is meant to give the regime a more
modern and human face, as well as to lure the liberal-minded folk, while
Vladimir Putin’s machismo and stern looks seem to appeal more to the
traditionalist segments of Russian society. Thus the Kremlin’s “double
act” serves to broaden the regime’s political base and preserve the
status quo during the turmoil of the global economic downturn.

So why rock the boat? Why would Medvedev take on Putin in 2012? To carry
out his “modernization agenda?” But as I’ve argued (including on these
pages), any true modernization of Russia presupposes the introduction of
competition into domestic politics and economy, the discontinuation of
the currently widespread practice of the merger of political power and
business interests, and the strict implementation of the rule of law. In
practical terms, such reforms will inevitably revitalize Russia’s
political sphere, give rise to the true, not fake, political struggle,
and ultimately spell the end of the present regime of “tandemocracy,”
which rests on stage-managed elections, controlled political succession
and the state bureaucracy’s dominance over the economy’s “commanding

So as far as the “2012 problem” is concerned, I guess it would be more
prudent to just believe what the main protagonists keep saying about it –
namely, that they will amicably sort it out among themselves and make
an agreement. In his recent interview with AFP, Putin reiterated this

This “amicable agreement,” however, is unlikely to move Russia’s polity
closer to modern mature democracy or, for that matter, to facilitate the
modernization of Russia’s economy. As for pundits, they could do worse
than start talking less about personalities and more about the
fundamental principles underlying political regimes.