Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a “Bad” Prime Minister
June 1, 2016
Remember the Soviet joke about the plumber who comes to an apartment to fix a leaky radiator?
“The entire system is rotten here: the entire system has to be changed!” he concludes.
The joke is as topical now as it was then, because the system, it seems, has hit rock bottom. But the nation is clearly of two minds. It is seemingly aware of what has been happening in the country, but at the same time it maintains its loyalty to the regime that has brought us to this pass.
On the one hand, we see a president with a huge rating. On the other hand, we see a rapidly failing economy, a deteriorating social sphere, and, consequently, a high degree of public dissatisfaction with the regime. How can it be that as the foundation crumbles, the president manages to maintain his popularity?
The logic of this social attitude was, I think, nicely expressed by a cabbie who recently gave me a lift.
“Putin is going like gangbusters: the West, America, Syria, Donbas. And Medvedev is supposed to be taking care of the economy instead of fiddling with his iPhone.”
And right then and there he served me up a helping of bad news. He has been getting less work. Prices are rising. Who knows where the hell we are headed.
The taxi driver in fact reproduced the classic propaganda formula he hears every day on the TV. Aside from America, bad officials and liberals are the root of our troubles. The government is clearly underperforming, while the president is terribly busy with foreign policy and lifting Russia from its knees. He is the country’s sacred patron, its guardian angel, and the shortcomings of officials do not stick to him.
If you are thinking straight, cognitive dissonance must kick in, of course. The president has a huge number of powers. He appoints the government, and he could, if he felt like it, sack any minister, including the prime minister, without consulting with anyone. He has the power to kickstart any reforms via presidential decrees. And the Duma is at his beck and call, for United Russia holds the majority of seats there. Why does Putin not appoint a good team, dismiss corrupt officials, and announce a policy shift for the country? How will he lift the country from its knees if the economy tanks? If he is weak and incapable of doing it, why should we support him? If he just does not want to do it, that is another strike against him. But the nation, which has a weak grasp of political institutions and sees no credible alternative in sight, is willing to believe that “Putin has it rough,” that “he is fighting,” and that “they are getting in his way.”
The massive brainwashing on this point allows the regime to keep a tight lid on the system and change nothing fundamental about it, thus preserving the current inertial scenario, which is favorable to the elites. It is favorable to them because, were the government to decide to undertake economic reforms, the economic interests of the elites would inevitably take a hit, forcing them to surrender some of their comforts and excess profits.
However, while the costs of the crisis are primarily borne by the masses, somebody has to be made the fall guy, the virtual whipping boy. With the exception of defense minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the cabinet has been appointed to this role along with abstract liberal circles, who, allegedly, have a behind-the-scenes influence on officials.
It is obvious that today the head of state cannot officially support the current course, which has resulted in rampant poverty among the population. Equating this policy with the president would be, if not tantamount to suicide, then certainly a powerful blow to his popularity. But Putin has no intention to change course for the reason given above: the interests of the elites. For this reason, on the eve of the election campaigns, the plan is to deliberately unhook the domestic agenda from the president and hang it on Medvedev and his government. Consequently, the prime minister will no longer be the number two man in Russia, but an expendable, a scapegoat.
Moreover, we should not identify Medvedev with United Russia. Their identities are not blurred in the propaganda, and this is no accident. All the negativity towards officials and the head of the government must not devolve on the party tasked with winning a majority in the Duma in September. United Russia members have thus even been criticizing government ministers, pretending that they and the executive branch are different animals, despite the fact they have the same leader (Medvedev) and a majority in parliament, allowing them to make any and all political appointments and legislative decisions.
This is a quite important part of the spectacle. Medvedev has to be a lightning rod for Putin, and yet United Russia, which Medvedev chairs, has to make it successfully through the campaign for the new seating of the Duma. Since this is the task at hand, the regime will do its utmost to control the volume of criticism leveled at the prime minister, including criticism voiced by opposition parties. As for attacks by forces close to the regime (e.g., the Russian People’s Front’s usual philippics against bureaucrats), they will most likely come down to a matter of tweaking the picture to help the president avoid the impact of potential criticism for the current situation. But the propagandists will avoid belittling the government excessively during the election period. “Local officials” will bear the brunt of the negativity. The government, moreover, will be given carte blanche to spend budgetary funds for populist purposes and to mitigate the crisis, including through a temporary increase in dividends paid out by large corporations. (The figures currently quoted range between 300 and 400 billion, which should be quite enough to get through the summer.)
Thus, during the Duma campaign, Medvedev will draw fire upon himself. So-called managed democracy, however, will ensure this fire will not turn into a conflagration and burn the regime and the elites. The president must remain unharmed, since his main play strategically is the 2018 presidential election, a key election for the elites.
The next act in the political spectacle will be Medvedev’s premiership after the Duma elections in September and in the run-up to 2018. Here, too, he will function as a whipping boy and political expendable, readying the way for the launch of Putin’s next presidential campaign.
After the election, the prime minister, having received formal carte blanche from the voters, can undertake unpopular measures. (Unless, of course, the oil price suddenly rises miraculously.) It is inevitable. Someone has to pay for the crisis, and, apparently, the elites are still not this someone. In any case, it is Medvedev who will have to make ends meet in the 2016 budget, with its whopping 14.7% deficit on the expenditures side, and then rob Peter to pay Paul when drafting the 2017 and 2018 budgets.
If the situation gets ugly, and the populace’s complaints attain a critical mass, Putin can dismiss Medvedev on the eve of the presidential election, appointing him to some cushy post. And he will again profit from the decision, because in the eyes of the electorate, the president will be seen as a virtual national savior. Having dampened tensions in society this way, he will be re-elected to another six-year term as president, winning an acceptable percentage of the vote. The opposition will again be confounded, and someone like Alexei Kudrin can become prime minister. This will nicely symbolize the compromise between “liberals” and “conservatives,” while also functioning as a nod to the west, whose cheap money we need desperately.
The alpha and omega of all this complicated maneuvering is preserving the system, and thus preserving the privileges and assets of the supreme elites, their lifestyle, and their ability to peaceably transfer their wealth to their children. They will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and once again enjoy the sunsets on the French Riviera and in Italy.
Only time and economic conditions will tell what comes next. If the country’s currency reserves run out, and the oil price does not increase, intrigues around choosing Putin’s successor will kick off. Or a new scapegoat will be found, and so on ad infinitum. Generally speaking, the current regime just does not plan that far ahead.
Only one question remains. What is in all of this for Medvedev himself? Does he enjoy being expendable? Here it is like the line from the classic Soviet comedy film The Pokrovsky Gate: “Life is lived not for pleasure’s sake, but for the sake of conscience.”
I think the answer that immediately comes to mind is also the most likely to be the right answer. Medvedev does his job and is loyal to his boss. He cannot imagine himself outside the system, much less as the creator of a new system.
Another joke comes to mind in this connection. President Medvedev wakes up in a sweat. His wife asks what the matter is.
“I dreamt I fired Putin,” Medvedev replies.
2011 clearly showed that staging a revolution or even serious reforms was beyond the prime minister’s scope. Medvedev’s political career consists of brief ascents followed by a series of humiliations. However, his job has numerous upsides, too. Is it so bad being prime minister of such a rich country as Russia for a whole six years?
Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up.