All of Medvedev’s men

President Dmitry Medvedev has demonstrated that he is prepared to lead Russia on a different executive course as he draws a new breed of reservists into his elite circle. Is the St. Petersburg monopoly over?

On December 31, 1999, former president Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation, handing over the reigns of power to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The former head of the FSB, a relative unknown in the world of politics, was suddenly confronted with a modern Time of Troubles: the business elite had practically taken up residence inside the walls of the Kremlin; Chechnya had once again flared up into a smoldering tinderbox; and the general level of morale across the country, still trying to come to grips with the new economic system, had fallen to historic lows.

This menacing three-headed dragon put into motion a huge migration of talent from St. Petersburg, Putin’s place of birth, study and work. Unprecedented challenges demand unprecedented actions. Indeed, one of the principal criticisms of Putin’s two-term presidency involved the number of former security and intelligence personnel (“siloviki”) filling top government positions. Whatever one may think of the strategy, nobody could say that it failed. Indeed, it succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest expectations. The oil windfall only came after Putin’s most momentous victories had been achieved.

According to an article in the Washington Quarterly (Winter 2006-2007), “Putin… cleaned house… installing loyalists in top posts and limiting the extent to which big business could buy policies and officials. In short, following the organizational chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, the Kremlin regained virtual monopoly control over Russian politics and began to function as an institution. The values, preferences, and dispositions of its chief are therefore a key driver of policy.”

And as the authors of the WQ article admitted, the term ‘siloviki’ did not correctly apply to the realities of Putin’s government.

“Because many members of the Kremlin faction… do not fit this bill, siloviki is a misnomer for the group as a whole,” the authors wrote.


  Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (AFP Photo / RIA Novosti / Pool / Alexey Druzhinin)

Indeed, a disproportionate amount of media ink was spilled over the shadowy siloviki, despite the fact that Putin’s government had a respectable number of economic liberals in its ranks (German Gref, the former Economic Development and Trade Minister, for example, and Aleksey Kudrin, the Finance Minister), as well as so-called technocrats (including Gazprom president Alexey Miller, and then Gazprom chairman, Dmitry Medvedev).

Today, Russia has new demons to face, with economic crisis, tumbling oil prices and shuttered factories topping the list. So with the new executive challenges comes a new cadre of individuals to lend their professional expertise. And that means the end of the St. Petersburg monopoly in the halls of power.

In February, President Dmitry Medvedev announced a list of 100 individuals, “the brightest of the bright,” who are in holding position to receive top government positions. The choice of candidates is interesting for several reasons, and not just because it is widely available for public consumption.

First, the oldest person on the list, Garry Minkh, who was appointed the Kremlin’s envoy to the State Duma, is just 50 years old, a stark contrast from the old war horses still limping around the Kremlin. Second, many of the nominees, like Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh, RusAl CEO Aleksandr Bulygin and VTB CEO Mikhail Zadornov, hail from the world of business.

Finally, and most tellingly, none of the individuals on the list have or had any sort of membership in the security forces, the spooky siloviki who once upon a crisis descended on the Russian capital from St. Petersburg to deliver law and order on a white horse. Given the rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg, many Muscovites are visibly delighted to see “fresh blood” (i.e., not St. Pete blood) entering into the government ranks again.

This cream of the crop represents the gravy on top of the power pyramid, as it were, of the presidential reserve list. Over 20,000 names will eventually fill out the ranks of this power resource, and the Kremlin promises to release the names of its honor roll once it is completed.

Naturally, the new presidential reserve is being hyped up in the West as proof of an irreparable schism between the Putin and Medvedev people, as if a political law exists somewhere that says two disparate groups cannot complement each other on a range of issues, as if everything was simply a matter of black and white with no shades of grey. The list, which was put together on the basis of merit, as opposed to old cronyism, shows that Russia has successfully navigated a dangerous corner on democratic tradition. Yet, many view any attempts by Medvedev to conform his government to the modern realities as a breakdown between himself and Putin.

“An apprehension is growing on both sides, particularly the Putin side,” commented Dmitry Simes, head of the Nixon Center in Washington, as quoted by the Financial Times in December. “Several of Putin’s associates are uneasy about his [Medvedev’s] new assertiveness.”

This is simply wishful thinking on the part of particular western commentators and institutions, who would like nothing more than to see the relationship between the young Russian president and his prime minister fizzle out and ultimately fail. They seem to forget that Putin, as well as Medvedev, are rock hard pragmatists, and both understand the necessity of changing teams according to the times.


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev heads up a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 4, 2009 (AFP Photo / Pool / Natalia Kolesnikova)

If we could use a sport parallel to summarize the differences, Putin appointed his personnel as if he were coaching a hockey team. In this brutal game, the points come slow and painfully and the amount of physical exertion and even contact oftentimes bears little fruit. Blood is often spilled. Medvedev is looking like a basketball coach, where the game demands finesse, constant scoring, lots of speed and minimal contact. In other words, much like the ailing yet still hyperactive global economy.

Medvedev’s presidential reserve proves that Russia has come to grips with the modern realities, and is no longer wasting its energies fighting the dead demons of the distant past. Naturally, Putin understands the present situation every bit as well as the president.

The new threat confronting Russia, and the rest of the world, is to contain the global contagion of economic and capital crisis. Medvedev’s list seems to be perfectly calibrated to fulfill that mission.

Robert Bridge, RT