The Putvedev Tandem: Duel or Synergy?

Following up on yesterday’s post regarding the equalization of Medvedev and Putin’s popularity, I decided I would seize upon some developments today which I think illustrate a common theme of “tandemocracy” (тандемократия) in Russia.  There are a few common memes when it comes to “Putin vs. Medvedev” in the media:

  1. Putin Shadow – refers to the notorious PM’s influence and, more specifically, Medvedev’s either (a) alleged inability to overcome this power deficit or (b) attempts at “emerging” from behind this imposing obstacle.  If Medvedev sees Putin’s shadow, Russia will experience six more years of an unfree, authoritarian winter, as provided for in his amendments to the Constitution.  Evidence of this meme usually consists of Putin doing something Putinesque (e.g., throwing a pen at Deripaska, shooting a tiger with a tranq gun) or, alternatively, Medvedev saying something very un-Putineque (e.g., “corruption is bad … the oil will run out … blogs are cool”).  Really, all you need to do to get a feel for the strength of this meme is to google – medvedev putin shadow – which yields 1.9 million results (in defense of Western journalists, there are 2.4 million hits in Russian).  Google News shows that the Putin Shadow meme picked up speed in late-2007 when Putin endorsed Medvedev, peaked in 2008 when Medvedev was inaugurated, and has declined since then, with similar patterns for Russian-language sources.
  2. Good-Cop/Bad-Cop – the other major meme – though infinitely less popular than Putin Shadow – is that Medvedev and Putin are in fact coordinating their “governance” in all spheres (i.e., domestic and foreign affairs) with Putin cast as the tough guy and Medvedev with the soft sell. This has been around since at least early 2008.  I first commented on this with regards to a specific policy after the apparently contradictory statements of the two leaders on Russia’s plans to join the World Trade Organization.  The situation has repeated itself, however, with regards to most major issues, including Iran, the post-START treaty, the reaction to the Perm fire, etc.  Of course, these events can just as easily fit within the Putin Shadow framework, but – in my opinion – tend to fit more easily in the Good-Cop/Bad-Cop category. 

I would like to square the circle and suggest that the Good-Cop/Bad-Cop meme is more accurate, but that it is not entirely inconsistent with a belief that Putin still holds all power in Russia and in fact does not want Medvedev to form his own power base.  The basis for this analysis were two separate yet related events in which Medvedev and Putin participated today.

Medvedev was in Tomsk and held a meeting of the Commission on Modernization and Technological Development of the Russian Economy.  There, he called on Russia’s largest [private] companies to invest in the modernization of Russia’s economy, and among other things promised co-financing from the Russian state for priority projects.  Here is Medvedev speaking at the meeting:


Meanwhile, held a press conference with Fiat and Sollers where he stood next to the two companies’ CEOs and announced that the Russian state will underwrite their joint venture in Russia to the tune of USD 3.3 billion.  The resulting venture will make Fiat the number one car producer in Russia and would mainly compete with OAO AvtoVAZ, manufacturer of the famed Lada.  Analysts noted that, despite a 49 percent fall in new car sales in Russia last year and the inconvenient location of Sollers’ Tatarstan factory, Fiat went through with the decision because “Russia seems to have made Fiat an offer that’s hard to refuse.”

Dueling Synergies?

Today’s events are anecdotal evidence of a broader trend I’ve noticed – Medvedev and Putin are generally on the same page about major issues, but their roles in implementing those ideas differ greatly.  Particularly, Medvedev gets to talk about the idea of modernization and the policy of co-financing from the state for priority investment projects.  Putin gets to actually do these things, or at least gets to do the things which are intended to be examples of these ideas and policies in action.  So, when Medvedev talks about Russian companies’ obligations to Russian society, their workers, etc., Putin gets to go to Pikalyovo and force oligarchs to pay their workers.  When the Perm nightclub burns down, Medvedev can talk about how corruption is a physical danger to Russians, while Putin gets to fire the entire government of Perm.  If you watch, you will see this narrative continues to reappear.
For the Putin Shadow people, this pattern doesn’t undermine your theory.  After all, Putin is the one who gets to do the arguably cooler and more “active” tasks.  On the other hand, Medvedev is the one announcing the guiding ideas and policies – i.e., those that guide Putin.  In the United States, we tend to value actions – even symbolic, irrelevant ones – over words (think of Pres. Bush at the Twin Towers rubble vs. Pres. Bush looking out the window of Air Force One at the post-Katrina Gulf Coast).  Thus, it is tempting to assume that Putin will be perceived as the winner here, despite the possibility that the Russians hold a different view of leadership.  It’s really impossible to know for sure, as this implies reading the mind of Medvedev and Putin (note that this applies to all Russia-watchers, regardless of their conclusions).  At the very least, I think it is reasonable to conclude that Medvedev and Putin are coordinating their activities on many issues, and that their speeches and announcements are intended to complement one another rather than conflict.


Finally, though it does appear that Medvedev and Putin have a coordinated strategy, it is possible to identify instances of independence.  The most recent example of this was Putin’s speech to the State Council, in which he claimed that “half of the material on the internet is pornography.”  Putin was of course responding to online accusations that the recent regional elections were rigged.  But, on the same day as the speech, Medvedev urged regional leaders to start using blogs to stay in touch with their constituents (presumably the same ones complaining about the falsified elections).  Of course, IT is an essential component of Russia’s modernization strategy and Putin is certainly on board with this.  Still, I can’t help but hear the real, old-school Putin responding to Medvedev’s dorkish obsession with blogs when he dismisses half the internet as smut.        

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