Who’s In Charge in the Kremlin?
by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis
Back in the old Soviet days, Kremlin leadership changes used to be marked by a new pecking order of dumpy communist apparatchiks in awful suits glowering from atop Lenin’s tomb as tanks and cheesy floats rolled through Red Square.
No longer. Roll over Brezhnev and Tchaikovsky. Welcome to the cool new Mother Russia.
Last February, Russia’s new leaders, 55-year-old Vladimir Putin and 42-year-old Dimitri Medvedev, showcased their new diumverate by confidently strolling from the Kremlin across Red Square to attend a Deep Purple rock concert of all things. Forget about boring old "Swan Lake." Decked out in hip black leather jackets and tailored jeans, these two men symbolized the new, youthful, self-assured Russia.
Last week, Dimitri Medvedev, a bland bureaucrat who was Putin’s longtime protégé and hand-picked successor, was inaugurated president of Russia. Putin, who heads the United Russia Party, the nation’s largest, became prime minister. Officially, the prime minister reports to the president and serves at his pleasure.
So the whole world immediately asked, "who’s really the boss?"
Good question. Let me put on my Kremlinologist hat. Putin, who famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," may be replicating the old USSR’s power structure.
The Soviet Union had two parallel governments. A civilian one, with a president, legislature, and ministers that was supposedly elected and looked like other parliamentary governments. And a mirror structure run by the Communist Party. Real power was held by the Party’s General Secretary and Politburo who made all important policy decisions. The civilian government was charged with implementing them.
We can envisage a similar dual arrangement in Moscow today wherein Putin fills the role of the old Soviet General Secretary and Medvedev that of more or less figurehead president.
Former apparatchik Medvedev used to head Gazprom, Russia’s giant energy firm. He would seem likely to focus on economic development and raising living standards. Putin, formerly of KGB’s elite First Directorate, will focus on foreign policy and rebuilding Russia’s military and diplomatic power. But such a division of power and interest flies in the face of normal government structure, take France for good example, where the prime minister deals with the economy and key domestic issues while the president handles national security and foreign policy.
Whatever the case, Vladi and Dimi, as they are known, are sitting on a bonanza. Russia has 20% of the world’s natural gas reserves, and at least 7% of proven oil reserves, some 75 billion barrels. However, most of Russia’s huge reserves are in remote regions in Siberia and the Arctic and will require vast investment to further exploit. Even so, as energy prices soar, Russia grows wealthier and more powerful by the day, a sort of Saudi Arabia with snow. Putin’s re-nationalization of the nation’s oil industry under Medvedev played a key role in restoring Moscow’s finances to robust health. This is all part of Putin’s proclaimed 30-year strategy to turn his nation into the world’s leading energy and military power.
Interestingly, Russia today commands far more influence over Western Europe than it did when 100 Red Army divisions threatened the continent to the point where France began rearming the Maginot forts and American generals talked about having to "go nuclear" on the fifth day of a Soviet invasion.
Russia’s Gazprom now account for nearly 40% of Germany and Ukraine’s gas consumption, 33% of Italy’s, 26% of France’s heating needs, 70% of Austria’s, and almost all of Eastern Europe’s gas. Moscow no longer needs tanks to intimidate Europe. If Vladi and Dimmi turn off the gas export tap, as they recently did to late-paying Ukraine, Europeans will shiver in the winter cold. Russian gas heats their homes and provides hot water.
Washington is deeply alarmed by Russia’s growing energy clout. Until recently, the US controlled much of world energy through its domination of the Mideast. Now, however, Russia is challenging America’s Oil Raj and Washington is struggling to develop new pipeline routes to circumvent Russia’s fast expanding pipeline network.
Prime Minister Putin can look back on his eight-year presidency with satisfaction. He ruthlessly crushed the life out of the Chechen independence struggle, as he promised Russians he would do. Thanks to high energy prices, in part caused by the US invasion of Iraq, he doubled Russia’s national income, renewed pensions, and restored national pride. He has also been slowly rebuilding Russia’s run-down military forces.
Most important from the viewpoint of Russian nationalists, Putin thwarted the Clinton administration’s attempts to establish political and economic US tutelage of Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia, and pulled Russia out of the bankruptcy that had made it dependent on secret cash infusions from Washington.
The Kremlin must now deal with NATO’s steady advance to Russia’s borders. The western power’s "drang nach osten" is a clear violation of secret agreements between Washington and former General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev not to advance NATO any further east that it was in 1991 in exchange for Moscow allowing the Baltic and Eastern European states to break away from Soviet domination.
In spite of Putin’s crushing democratic government and suppression of free expression, his approval ratings run well over 60%. If Putin and Medvedev can avoid falling out, and continue fruitful teamwork, they are well placed to restore Russia as a global power and turn this long-suffering nation into tomorrow’s economic success story.