The First Glow of Real Politics

November 22, 2013

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin has perhaps always been rivals, but it’s clear that Putin is the alpha politician in their relationship. Last week, this dynamic came into the spotlight once again when Medvedev criticized a piece of legislation proposed by Putin. The President responded by essentially telling Medvedev that if he didn’t like it he could quit and join the “expert community.” Earlier this week we posted an article by TV Rain which detailed the seven things that Putin did to ensure that Medvedev would remain in his place. Now, we publish this editorial that appeared in the Kremlin-linked Izvestia news outlet. – Ed.

Political analyst and journalist Boris Mezhuev on the reasons for the differences between the president and the government:

Once the country is hit with budgetary problems, a ghost of real politics immediately comes on the stage: minor problems immediately recede to the background, and the foreground is filled with conflicts that have a class-policy background fundamental to our system. In 2008-2009, at the height of the global economic crisis, what could be called now a “liberal Fronde” gradually took shape on the sidelines of economic forums and expert meetings. Not an opposition in the strict sense of the word, as the Fronde never had outright political demands for those in power. More precisely, some kind of regime change was not the goal: Medvedev was perceived by the Fronde as “their man,” and the government of Putin/Kudrin was tolerated as the most effective under the circumstances [Alexei Kurdin was Minister of Finance from May 18th, 2000,  until September 26, 2011 – Ed].

However Fronde had its own set of economic claims. Its representatives believed that the crisis must steer the government ship sharply to the right: the heavy-handed control of tax payments must be drastically weakened, the budget should be markedly reduced, the social scope must be expanded, and the public sector should be significantly reduced. The Fronde insisted on their aspirations coming true in the case of a favorable treatment on the part of the government, and even expressed their willingness to play the role of a mediator between the government and businesses in ensuring additional inflow of tax revenues to regional budgets.

However, the Fronde claims were deflected in 2009. With the help of reserve funds, pulled by Kudrin’s hand out of the U.S. stash the state managed to more or less independently solve the key budgetary problems. And a proposition of some kind of a separate agreement between the business circles and the authorities led to protests by the agencies responsible for the domestic policies back then, who considered that an infringement on the rights of the legitimate representative bodies. As I remember the last ones to wake up were the left, who also expressed dissatisfaction that the right-wing circles offer a backroom deal to the authorities, without taking into account the interests of working people.

Yet, even then it became clear that this conflict between the liberal Fronde and the authorities would be a long-term in nature, and it was sure to come back with another turn of the budget crisis. And it is happening today, when, in the opinion of well-respected experts, “the Russian budget, with its expenditures that keep growing year after year, hit the ceiling. The expenditures of the federal budget have been quietly reduced by 5%” (I quote here the latest interview with Natalya Zubarevich, a sociologist popular in liberal circles).

The class position of our bourgeois Fronde is such that during the good, or as we like to say “fat” years, its representatives are able to brilliantly present their demands as national. In that case we are talking mainly about the rule of law, that “freedom is better than unfreedom”, that people are demanding a general amnesty and fair elections. But as soon as a sad era of budget deficits comes, the class selfishness naturally prevails, and then another slogan comes to the fore: tax relief for businesses, and shifting all the burden on wage labor and industrial regions. On the other hand, the federal government that is required to ensure a balance between all the segments of the population, is forced to maneuver and to combine tax breaks for businesses, in particular by keeping a flat tax, with a rigid supervision over them.

Since the real politics in our country stays within the executive branch, while the State Duma is busy with important issues such as a ban on smoking and surrogate maternity, all this intra-elite conflict very quickly reaches the heights of the executive vertical, splitting that still unified team. The president’s decision to meet the demand by security services, that is to give them the right to initiate proceedings under Articles 198 and 199 of the Criminal Code on tax evasion, has met a totally expected opposition from the right Fronde that has just woke up after a political hibernation, and less anticipated support for it on the part of the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The most unpleasant part of this conflict that has just become obvious is the difference of views within the ruling team, that up until now has demonstrated a clear consensus on economic issues (the executive seems to have easily ignored the government’s separate opinion on the issue of “the Dima Yakovlev law [also known as the Anti-Magnitsky bill – Ed]”.) It seems that this time the head of the Cabinet has seriously violated some unwritten rules of the game and the most serious informal arrangements. According to these arrangements, the prime minister could probably demonstrate that he is more liberal on a range of social and cultural issues, that are important but not systemically so, however when the time came for the realpolitik and a clash of real class interests, he was obligated to stand shoulder to shoulder with his senior partner in the former tandem, instead of joining the diverse political and economic movement that I (after the late thinker Vadim Tsymbursky) called “business Fronde”.

Of course, the public dispute between the president and the prime minister is likely to stop anyway. The government is unlikely to ask for its resignation, and if the Prime Minister still continues the dispute, he, as the President said, will have to continue it as an independent expert, together with the ex-Minister of Finance. But in principle, it does not really matter, since it is unlikely that the conflict between the Fronde and the authorities can be resolved as easily. Under the current system, that conflict, I am afraid, will only keep festering. However, the actualization of talk about constitutional reform suggests that the president’s party sees an opportunity to resolve the conflict only by changing the whole system. How serious and effective the proposed changes will be, we will probably learn from the message of the President on December 12, and his subsequent televised press conference.