Unraveling The Tandem Switch

Now that my initial triumphalism over Putin’s return has faded a bit, it’s time for a more analytical look. One of the main reasons I thought Medvedev would be the more likely person to be United Russia’s Presidential candidate is that Putin was simply unwilling to return. As Daniel Treisman wrote in his book on post-Soviet Russia, “Once President, Putin very often looked like he would rather be somewhere else… I have never seen Putin look as happy as he did on election night 2008, when [he appeared] to congratulate Medvedev on his victory.” Not a description of someone who longs for power for its own sake, when considering that he was relinquishing the top position that he could have easily (and legally!) kept by simply amending the Constitution to allow more consecutive terms. Combined with Medvedev’s steadily high approval ratings, just a permanent whiff short of Putin’s according to the opinion polls, and the negative PR repercussions (at least abroad) of this move, I still don’t think that my original logic for arguing for Medvedev’s staying on was all that faulty.

But didn’t both Medvedev and Putin both refute that, saying everything had already been decided years in advance? Well, no. Contrary to the Western media coverage, that didn’t necessarily follow from their words. What Medvedev said was: “We really did discuss this variant of development back in that period, when we first formed our gentlemanly agreement” (мы действительно обсуждали этот вариант развития событий еще в тот период, когда сформировался наш товарищеский союз). What Putin said was: “I want to say it straight, that the agreement about what to do, what to work on in the future, we already made a long time ago, several years back” (хочу прямо сказать, что договоренность о том, что делать, чем заниматься в будущем, между нами давно достигнута, уже несколько лет назад).

But it is far from evident that what they meant by this was that they had decided on specifically Putin’s return long ago and just took the country on a wild goose chase in the intervening years of Medvedev’s Presidency. They merely said that the plan of action was decided long ago, but nobody actually said anything about specific personalities – any (i.e. most) reporting that referred to the “reshuffle” or “Putin’s return” as the object of those was misleading, since it could just have easily being something along the lines of “let the most popular man stand for President in 2012.” For all we know the Plan could have just been something along the lines of: “Let the most popular and authoritative man stand for President in 2012.” So those pundits who took their decision as an implicit condemnation of Russian democratic culture – that everything was decided years ago and the rest were all just for show, such as Medvedev’s earlier comments about not being averse to running for the Presidency – do not have the incontrovertible evidence that they think they do. This is why accurate translations and paying attention to the specifics of what is being said is actually very important.

In short, I think that it was a more close-run thing than many analysts now claim it to be, for in hindsight all things acquire the tinge of inevitability.

Why, in the end, was this course chosen? After all, while many of the criticisms leveled against Putin’s return, e.g. that it would shock investors* into fleeing, were clearly fallacious – the announcement had zero discernible effect on Russia’s stockmarkets – it is still undeniable that one has great power: the concept that leaders have a best before date and Putin now risks overstaying it. Ultimately, it boils down to Russia being a plebiscitary regime that tries to pay the utmost attention to opinion polls. And on this metric, Putin is unquestionably ahead. As of September 2011, according to Levada Putin has an approval rating of 37% to Medvedev’s 26%. But even this understates Putin’s popularity. In a recent Levada poll that asked whom Russians would vote for if the elections were held this weekend, Putin got 42%, whereas Medvedev got just 6%, lagging both Zyuganov at 10% and Zhirinovsky at 9%. When forced to choose between the two, most Russians overwhelmingly support Putin. Now obviously if Putin wasn’t running, most of his votes would have gone to Medvedev anyway, but the margin of victory would have been smaller and turnout would have been lower due to the lower numbers of genuine Medvedev fans. Consequently, the next administration’s legitimacy to make reforms promoted by liberal technocrats would have been lower.

You can’t ascribe Putin’s popularity to more TV coverage either, as some have tried to do such as A Good Treaty. According to the guys who actually keep the statistics, Medvedev has been consistently getting more coverage on federal TV media than Putin. It’s just that it’s far easier to be a fan of professional badass Putin – despite his antics becoming lamer of late – than of an iPhone President who manages to get owned by someone as PR-challenged as Bat’ka. Another refrain I’ve heard is that the polls don’t matter anyway, because the Kremlin will just rig the elections anyway. The cognitive dissonance is hard to fully comprehend. If we accept their claim that the Kremlin does rig elections – despite there being strong evidence against it, as election results correlate closely to opinion polls and exit polls – then how does that square with their support for Medvedev on account of his supposed liberal credentials? Isn’t liberalism and vote rigging mutually exclusive?

My conclusion after some thought is that things are far simpler than much of the commentariat make them out to be. There is zero evidence of any fundamental rift, or even friction between, Putin and Medvedev (even the lone “dissident” member of the Team, Kudrin, isn’t exactly out in the political wilderness). The logical consequence is that the ultimate question of Putin’s return wasn’t decided in 2008, but sometime during Medvedev’s Presidency; possibly, not even prior to my prediction of a second Medvedev term in 2012. I still do not think Putin is all that enthusiastic about it. The descent into lameness of his trademark popularity stunts, i.e. supposedly fishing ancient Greek urns out of the sea, may be associated with that. He just can no longer be assed to do any better. But faced with lackluster support for Putin’s only alternative, Medvedev; the relative lack of discernible economic, social, or foreign policy successes during his Presidency; and the increasingly fraught international environment – the Arab Spring, peak oil, the Eurozone crisis, the likely return of a Republican President unfriendly to Russia (enough to say that the current favorite, Mitt Romney, has Leon Aron as his Russia adviser) – pushed the Tandem into a cordial agreement to let Putin return. One is reminded of Putin’s August 2010 interview with Kommersant, in which he said: “I only have two choices. Either to watch from the bank how the waters are flowing away and how something is collapsing or falling away or to get involved. I prefer to be involved.”

One final point has to do with the outlining of Putin’s vision for Russian foreign policy, which seems to have decisively shifted towards Eurasian integration. This reminds one of another Putin interview more than ten years ago, in the months before Putin became President for the first time, which allows us to see a clear intersection between Putin’s long-term vision and the role of more recent contingencies: “We will strive to remain in [Europe], where we are geographically and spiritually located. But if we are going to get pushed out of it, we will be spurred into seeking alliances, and strengthening ourselves” (мы будем стремиться оставаться там, где мы географически и духовно находимся. А если нас будут оттуда выталкивать, то мы будем вынуждены искать союзы, укрепляться). Despite being at the brink of fiscal collapse along its peripheries, very little has changed in European attitudes to Russia. One clear and recent demonstration of the failure of the Reset – a policy associated with Medvedev, let it be reminded – is Sarkozy’s recent visit to Georgia, where he unreservedly supported Tbilisi’s position on the Russian “occupation” of Abkhazia and North Ossetia. The information war continues, albeit on a more playing field – it is good to see Russia finally learning the lessons of soft power, with RT providing good coverage of social protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and repression in Western countries that had previously gone unnoticed in their “free” medias. The way ahead has become more clear. Eurasian integration and closer relations with the rising Powers of the world, as opposed to the waning West – it is telling that Putin’s first visit post-United Russia congress will be to China – now makes patent sense from every perspective, and it is just as well that it is going to be spearheaded by the man with the higher approval ratings and a more authentic connection to popular Russian sentiment than the current Presidential incumbent.

А как же? Обязательно.

* Speaking of investors, it is good to see that Putin is actively promoting Russia to foreign investors by stressing its positive points at investment forums, as opposed to Medvedev’s rather bizarre strategy for luring foreign capital by telling them that “Russia’s “slow growth” hides stagnation.”


  1. “Not a description of someone who longs for power for its own sake,”

    Wanting power for its own sake is the default. That’s true even if you don’t much enjoy wielding it.

    There are primate studies that show top-ranking males often have elevated stress hormones. Insofar as it’s possible to tell with, say, baboons? A lot of their top guys aren’t having much fun. (Though some are. It depends.) But even the ones who have stress levels off the scale will still fight to gain power, keep power, and regain power if deposed. That’s just what’s normal for primates.

    Human beings can modulate the hell out of this with culture — cf. the modern Western norm of an ex-President or Prime Minister retiring to write his memoirs — but, as a purely empirical matter, based on available evidence, the underlying drive seems to be pretty much the same as with other primates.. So, “he didn’t seem to be having fun” is interesting but irrelevant to whether he’d come back.

    Doug M.

  2. As an (amateur) Kremlinologist, I agree with your assessment that Putin’s return to prez was not pre-ordained or agreed upon necessarily at the very beginning. It was probably more like “let’s see what happens down the road”. Indeed, as decision point approached, there even seems to be have been an element of power-struggle between Putin and Medvedev. Not a ferocious one, like (False Dmitry vs. Boris Godunov) or (Stalin vs. Trotsky). A fairly lame one, by Russian standards. But there were moments of real tension, as captured in Bykov’s awesome poem. The power struggle itself was probably something not unlike this wrestling match, where Putin used a move that one journalist dubbed the “Fight Back Dammit Floor Drag.” After being taken down in this graceless fashion, Medvedev was forced to publicly accept his own defeat by nomating Putin at Party Congress.
    I also like your implication that Putin doesn’t necessarily want to take power, but feels like he has to, because there is nobody else around who can do the job right now. Russians recognize that there is a serious course change due (Eurasian strategy; alliance with China; realistic acceptance of state of permanent cold war with West, etc.), and that Medvedev is obviously not the right guy to direct this course. So, Putin is like the aging CEO who has to return to save his company from bankruptcy because the younger generation of managers are not up to the challenge.

  3. “…he was relinquishing the top position he could have easily (and legally) kept by amending the Constitution to allow more consecutive terms.”

    This is what Bloomberg did in NYC – he wanted a third term as mayor, so he pushed the city council to abolish term limits. Which they did.

    I agree with your vision of the optimal foreign policy for Russia – close involvement with those ex-Soviet states that aren’t hateful towards Russia, a friendly attitude towards China, a public condemnation of NATO’s adventures.

  4. Once again, I find myself in agreement with Doug; in my view, Putin never made up his mind to run again until sometime within the last year. All that theorizing – appearing to be substantiated by their own words – that they planned the switch years ago is bunk; if Medvedev had turned out to be the leader Putin likely hoped he would be, I believe Putin would have been happy to keep a subordinate role. And remember – if anyone wants to suggest Putin was really pulling all the strings the whole time he was Prime Minister, we must ipso facto accept that the liberalizing ideas Medvedev was credited with were actually Putin’s ideas. I believe Putin was simply a little disappointed by Medvedev, and perceived that the screamers for liberal reform were having more of an effect on him than they should: and by their proportional representation in Russian society, he would be right. That shouldn’t suggest Medvedev was a failure – on the contrary, countries that did a great deal worse during that tumultuous period would have been very fortunate to have him as leader. But Russia, as we’ve discussed many times, is uniquely positioned and requires unique and carefully chosen leadership.

    • All that theorizing – appearing to be substantiated by their own words – that they planned the switch years ago is bunk…

      Crucial word is bolded. If one reads what they *actually* said, as opposed to what many people wrote they said, one finds that they didn’t reveal anything at all, as strictly speaking all they said only amounts to, “We two had some long-term plans.”

      Not exactly a revelation, that. Many people plan ahead.

    • Western liberal democracies don’t change the constitution every 5 minutes. transparent my arse.
      The UK is easily the most stable democracy in history and mother to all the world’s other stable democracies. its laws are the underpinning of nearly every major nation on the planet. Stalin, Mao, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin etc could never have come to power in the United Kingdom. not in a million years. What a joke.

      • Indeed, it gets faceless mugs like Bliar and Dave. Glad I left that hypocritical and imminently bankrupt dump.

        And BTW, if you’d bothered reading, the point was that Putin did not change the Constitution to shift power to the PM. He respected the two terms limits.

  5. “the failure of the Reset – a policy associated with Medvedev, let it be reminded – is Sarkozy’s recent visit to Georgia, where he unreservedly supported Tbilisi’s position”

    The problem is that not only is the Georgian leader alot smarter than Medvedev, he’s also more progressive in his social and economic reforms than Putin. Sarko deserves credit as a leader, stepping in to flake out Medvedev, then turning around and destroying the leadership of Libya and soon Syria. Sarko and Saakashvili don’t flake out. Medvedev should not retain a leadership position.

    “likely return of a Republican President unfriendly to Russia (enough to say that the current favorite, Mitt Romney, has Leon Aron as his Russia adviser”

    Romney: a rich kid from Detroit who lives in the land of intellectual snobs. I can’t see him doing well with the EOE types (dream act passed) or redneck whites in California although he might do well with the electronic church (mormonism could be a problem) and the wealthy who as a group tend to turn out (vote). Romney should educate himself about the true heritage of some of his pseudo-intellectual advisers who come-off as ardent Yukos supporters:

    • If Saakashvili is as intelligent as you say, why did he attack South Ossetia in the first place in 2008? He was spoiling for a fight with Russia and he believed that if Russia attacked his forces, the US and Israel would jump in straight away and help him out. Which of course they didn’t do! Was that smart or what?

      And why does Saakashvili crush dissent in Georgia? Does not sound like a socially progressive leader to me. The country is also a lot poorer than when it first became independent and its military budget is shockingly huge for a small, impoverished state of a few million: the New Internationalist gives a figure of US$1 billion for 2008. The country is now pretty much a fiefdom of the US and I predict when the US starts attacking Iran, Georgia will have to play host to thousands of marines and military jets and surrender what little sovereignty it has to a power it doesn’t understand. Smart or what?

  6. “But didn’t both Medvedev and Putin both refute that, saying everything had already been decided years in advance? Well, no.”

    Kremlinology is a not science. I don’t know why the media pretends it to be. I think it might be more interesting to track the way media whispers eventually evolve into facts.

    For example, I found this link from you about 1.25 million recent emigrants:
    Now an expat has taken that figure and rounded it up to 2 million here:

    We know Stalin was a bad man, but Conquest’s highly-inflated figures are the only ones that stick today. The same thing is happening with this.

  7. sinotibetan says:


    I think Putin decided to come back because Medvedev was a disappointment as leader and President. The challenges Russia will be facing, as you have aptly put, are immense indeed. Certainly not the kinds that Medvedev can handle. Putin is certainly putting his own popularity at risk as he needs to make decisions that may be unpopular. The choice of Premier – maybe with a more ‘Russian liberal’ slant(Medvedev) is probably deliberate : perhaps to deflect blame for unpopular moves? Certainly Russia has no politicians of similar calibre as Putin at this time and he decided this comeback rather than watch the country destabilize.


  8. Alexander Mercouris says:

    I cannot agree with the view that Putin is seriously disappointed with Medvedev. If he was would he appoint Medvedev to be his Prime Minister? The impression I get is that the two are on friendly terms and remain firm political allies. I always thought claims of a split or of disagreements between the two were exaggerated.

    I have never taken as much interest in this question as have others but for what it’s worth my take on it is that Putin wants to see many of the things he started such as the Customs Union, EuraSec, the CES etc as well as the economic and administrtive changes in the country’s internal system he brought about through to their conclusion. He probably believes that he is the best person to provide the country with the stability and the necessary sense of direction these processes need if they are to mature and bear fruit and who is to say that he is wrong?

  9. The Kremlin’s control over television is directly responsible for the popularity of both tandem members. It’s interesting that Medvedev has had his name mentioned more times than Putin in recent months, but I’d be curious to see a qualitative analysis of that media attention. It’s standard Russian news policy to carry reports about the President’s regular schedule (always showing him at his desk, meeting with various figures and authorities). I’m sure Putin got much of the same coverage, but he’s also completed a number of high profile PR stunts to galvanize the public.

    The reason people (like me) raise the ‘control of the media’ issue is that other people (like you) regularly say that ‘the votes match the polls.’ While there are discrepancies that you prefer to downplay, the fact remains that the entire campaign system is rigged. Televised news is so obviously favorable to the tandem and United Russia (and to Pravoe Delo there, for the blink of an eye) that it’s absurd to discuss democracy in Russian elections. Add to this the various infrastructural advantages that members of ‘the party of power’ regularly exploit in elections, and you have a very good basis for understanding how Putin and company do so well in both opinion polls and elections.

    • If TV was *all* that important, one would expect that Putin’s support would be substantially higher among pensioners, who are the least likely to have Internet access, right? But reality is actually the exact opposite.

      From what I’ve seen of Russian TV, I do not think that televised news is at all “obviously favorable” to United Russia. Take this episode, in which an NTV host gives moral support to a liberal provocateur against UR deputy Markov.

      And, BTW – what’s to stop Medvedev doing his own PR stunts? The answer is that unlike Putin, he is a nerd, – it’s not that anybody is stopping him.

    • Your premise is patently false. Unlike the west (e.g. USA, Canada), Russians do not give the media the benefit of the doubt, a legacy of the USSR era. It is in the west where TV news controls opinion and not in Russia. I can tell this first hand by living in Canada and having relatives in Russian and Ukraine.

      For example, the western media spews the theory that Khodorkovsky is a viable presidential candidate in Russia on a regular basis. So most people in the west think he is some sort of a repressed dissident and not an oligarch crook who has no chance at the polls. Similar western anti-Russian conspiracy theories are standard news fare like Litvinenko being offed by Putin with Polonium (even leaving a Polonium trail back to Moscow! LOL). Similar inanity cannot fly in the Russian media since Russians would not swallow such BS conspiracy theories.

      The reason that Putin is popular is that western conspiracy theories are truly and utterly nonsensical and no self-respecting Russian buys them when they know that their standard of living improved dramatically between 1999 and 2008. Kasparov, Limonov, Nemtsov, Khodorkovsky, Novodvorskaya, etc. are simply clowns who have legitimacy and concocted popularity status in the west. So the metric the west uses to evaluate Russia’s democracy is a corrupt and self-serving contrivance. And your post reflects how effectively the western media controls western perceptions of Russia. Perhaps you and other sanctimonious westerners should look for alternative channels of information that don’t peddle hate propaganda on a daily basis.

  10. Alexander Mercouris says:

    I do not have access to Russian television so I cannot judge it. However even if television is indeed as biased as is said I still have issues with this argument. Everything I have heard about media bias suggests that when it takes place at too extreme a level instead of support it provokes cynicism with viewers tending to switch off. Obviously I am not discussing completely closed societies such as North Korea. Russia is not North Korea but a relatively open society with a well educated population who will by now have acquired a certain level of maturity and political sophistication. One must not fall into the error of treating Russians like a flock of sheep who obediently vote as they are told at the flick of a television switch.

    I do want to make one further point. It often seems to me that when western commentators talk about media bias more often than not what actually annoys them is the absence of such bias. Too often westerners confuse pro liberal bias with “objective” and “impartial” reporting. For what it’s worth I feel that the gaggle of liberal politicians currently active in Russia get a totally disproportionate amount of attention given the actual level of support they enjoy both in the western and the Russian press.

    • I clearly remember every anglophone media outlet (CBC, CNN, BBC, etc) spewing the mantra that “most Americans think that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11”. This was around 2003 and for many years after, but I barely hear it now. This is a clear example of western media propaganda. It essentially anointed Bush’s invasion of Iraq with popular legitimacy. As if all the lies about WMD didn’t matter, it was all about revenge for 9/11.

      In contrast, the same western media *never* mentions opinion poll results in Russia. This way they can claim that Putin or Medvedev are “dictators” who don’t reflect the will of the people like Bush. If the western media chirps something about public opinion in Russia it is always couched in the lie that Russian public opinion is controlled by state propaganda. As if Russians ignore outside information sources like typical Americans. In fact, Russians seek out foreign information as they did during the USSR era with shortwave radio. No Russian that I know turns on the TV set, tunes to a “state controlled channel” and gets their opinion form it. An example of the news content that Russians consume can be found at http://www.lenta.ru. I fail to see the steady stream of anti-western conspiracy theories and hate propaganda that likes of which I find on every anglophone media outlet, all singing the same BS in chorus.

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        Dear Kirill, you make your points much more forcefully than I would do but in the end I must agree with you.

        I would like to share with you an incident that happened in the spring of 2001, which has stayed with me. A British friend of mine used to work as an election monitor for the OSCE. She introduced me to her boss, who was Italian and whom I met at the Marriott Hotel in Kilburn. I do not remember his name. We discussed the Presidential election in Russia that had taken place the previous year. At that time Putin was not yet the demonic figure in the west he has now become. I pointed out to this man that the OSCE in giving the stamp of approval to the Presidential elections that had taken place in Russia in 1996 and 2000 had ignored the heavy media bias in favour of Yeltsin and Putin. He told me that as far as he was concerned in a country like Russia progress should not be measured by whether an election was “fair”. What mattered was whether the election approximated to the proper process. I told him that he would not be saying that if the winner had been Zyuganov and if the media bias had been in Zyuganov’s favour. He thought I was joking.

  11. sinotibetan says:

    Alexander and Kirill,

    1. Agree with both of you that Russians are not some ‘sheep’ that will just believe everything on Russian TV. Putin is popular for other reasons and not because of ‘Kremlin’s control of the TV’. Nowadays with Internet, people can get news(and different interpretations thereof) from diverse sources.

    2.”I cannot agree with the view that Putin is seriously disappointed with Medvedev.”
    I have this view mostly from sources in English(and thus ‘Western’). If this view is wrong, can I blame it on Western media bias? hahaha 😉
    Unfortunately I cannot read Russian and so have not much on Russian views of the Putin-Medvedev rift or lack of it.