Moscow Musical Chairs

The Russian leadership pulled off its political version of musical chairs this week. President Vladimir Putin, who has served two terms and under the Russian constitution can’t run again, stepped down in favor of his protégé, the little-known Dmitri Medvedev, then assumed the position of prime minister, in ceremonies that summoned up memories of czarist splendor and communist excess. The changing of the guard was topped off Friday by a massive parade of military hardware and columns of troops through Red Square.

These displays of military might were regular features under communism, but haven’t been held since 1990. The ostensible occasion for this parade was to mark the 63rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany.

There are many questions puzzling observers of a newly prosperous – thanks largely to oil and natural-gas reserves in a world of skyrocketing petroleum prices – and self-confident Russia. But the most significant one for this week is whether Mr. Medvedev represents a third term for the still-popular Mr. Putin or the beginning of a transition to new leadership. Both men stressed continuity in their speeches.

Who’s in charge? According to Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center, the answer is, "we simply don’t know." Neither Putin nor Medvedev has discussed anything like a division of powers in anything approaching detail. They have worked together for two decades, with Putin as the boss, but under the constitution the presidency is far and away the more powerful post. The president at least theoretically appoints the prime minister and can dismiss him. With Putin in the position, the president was the unchallenged leader, not only dominating the parliament and courts but making regional leaders subject to appointment by the Kremlin.

As prime minister, the position traditionally associated with domestic policy rather than foreign policy, however, Putin will still have considerable power. He has been named chairman of the United Russia Party, which has 315 of 450 seats in parliament, and the party rewrote its rules to allow the chairman to dismiss any functionary and suspend any party activity. Through the party, Putin will be in a position to control both houses of parliament, which can impeach the president and regional governors. He will also be in charge of Russia’s monstrous bureaucracy and state-controlled companies.

"We should know within about a year whether Dmitri Medvedev is a sock puppet for Putin or a leader in his own right," Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told me. Putin, who has presided over years of increasing prosperity and an increasingly assertive conception of Russia’s role in the world at large, is clearly the teacher here and Medvedev the student.

Mr. Carpenter believes that if the powers behind the throne that have supported Putin – politically connected businessmen, heads of bureaucracies, the military and the secret police – decide that Mr. Medvedev will serve their interests as well as Mr. Putin did, that Mr. Putin could start to fade from the picture. Indeed, that could be his intention. But Ted makes no predictions, and neither do I.

If Dmitri Medvedev does emerge as an independent leader, there is just a chance that the crackdown on civil liberties, freedom of expression and businessmen who don’t toe the Kremlin’s line that has marked the Putin years will ease a little bit. But there’s little chance that Medvedev will pursue a different foreign policy.

It is in the area of foreign policy that Russia’s leadership matters to the United States and the rest of the world. During most of the 1990s, when Russia was struggling with a terribly-managed transition from communism to a semblance of democracy, a faltering economy as state companies and properties moved to private monopoly ownership by politically-connected oligarchs rather than in a genuinely free-market, and the increasingly erratic leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the U.S. treated Russia rather shabbily. The U.S. was the prime mover in expanding NATO to Russia’s very borders and blowing off objections from a weakened Russia, rather than considering whether a NATO formed as a defensive military alliance against the Soviet Union had ceased to have any reason to exist with the Soviet Union gone.

U.S. leaders then – and continuing into the Bush administration, even though President Bush claimed he saw into the soul of Putin in one meeting and proclaimed him a good man – were not shy about lecturing Russia about its lack of true democracy, its shaky conceptions of human rights, and its government’s insistence on maintaining economic control rather than letting a truly independent private marketplace emerge. To be sure, many of the criticisms were valid, but the relentlessness with which U.S. leaders (some of whom were far from moral exemplars themselves) criticized a Russia that seemed to be down and out left a strong residue of anti-American sentiment, not only among leaders but among much of the populace, which had been inclined to admire the United States in the early and mid-1990s.

The U.S. also supported, sometimes rather directly and sometimes rhetorically, the various "color" revolutions that led to new and sometimes more pro-Western regimes in Georgia, Belorussia and elsewhere in what Russia calls its "near abroad," which every Russian regime since the rise of the czars has sought to influence or control directly. Most Russians also viewed this as a slap in the face. At the most recent NATO meeting the U.S. strongly supported admitting Georgia to NATO, but didn’t swing enough support from the European powers to get it done. And there’s Bush’s push to set up missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia believes are aimed at it rather than Iran

With the run-up in the price of petroleum, however, Russia has become much more prosperous. Even though a distressing amount of the resulting wealth has flowed to a few billionaires who have achieved their positions through political connections, ruthlessness and sometimes downright criminality, some of the wealth has trickled down and even ordinary Russians by and large feel better about their situation and their prospects.

With the renewed confidence has come a renewed desire to see Russia resume its "rightful" stature as a Great Power – and especially to reassert its influence in the "near abroad." This ambition has developed an increasingly explicit anti-American component that was wholly unnecessary.

The ambivalence of the relationship was underlined by two recent developments. The U.S. and Russia signed an agreement Tuesday on civilian nuclear cooperation, which officials claim will offer Russians lucrative new businesses and limit the risk of nuclear material being diverted to nuclear weapons. That’s a sign of being open to potentially mutually beneficial cooperation, though the agreement faces shortsighted opposition in Congress.

However, in recent weeks the U.S. and Russia have engaged in tit-for-tat expelling of diplomats and other embassy officials. Neither government will comment on the reasons. But this kind of mutual nastiness hasn’t been seen so explicitly since the Cold War.

What should the U.S. do about the changing of the guard in Moscow? The short answer is nothing, or at least nothing much. The U.S. government has little or no ability to influence the political course in Russia, and discretion would suggest backing off and watching warily.

The U.S. and Russia have a common interest in controlling the nuclear material still in Russian hands, but have been at odds over several issues, including de facto independence for Kosovo and sanctions on Iran. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee has put forward the idea of expelling Russia from the G-8, the grouping of supposedly advanced and significant large economic powers. This is a terrible idea. Membership in the G-8 carries benefits that are more symbolic than real and kicking Russia out would simply create another grievance. That he would suggest such an unnecessary slap in the face to a country where U.S. interests are marginal but that is poised to become more significant on the world stage suggests that he is hardly the kind of calm and calculating leader the U.S. could use in the post-Iraq era (if that era ever comes).

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).