Russia's Ruling Tandem Girds for Battle: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev seem determined to reassure both foreigners and Russians that their likely role-switch, following presidential elections next March, will redound to the benefit of all, and not result in the national stagnation many in the media are forecasting.

"We are thinking about ways for citizens to feel a stronger connection to the authorities, exercise stronger influence on the authorities, and be able to count on feedback from the authorities on the municipal, regional, and federal levels," Putin said at a meeting with journalists and professors held at the elite Le Cheval Blanc restaurant outside Moscow, the Moscow Times reported. During a sumptuous repast – “escalope of tuna steak with leeks, veal cheeks with green asparagus and morels, rhubarb sorbet and pear soup with caramel” – the premier also touched on issues including tense ethnic relations, information technology and Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization in the coming months.

Yevgeni Minchenko, general director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, opined that the upcoming “switching of masks” between Putin and Medvedev will allow the former to soften his image by implementing policies (including “widening government” and reforms to the Federation Council) advocated by the latter, reported the newspaper Kommersant. If this sounds vague, perhaps it was meant to be. Sergey Mitrokhin, the head of the opposition political party Yabloko, termed Putin’s talk about “evolution” just “a very useful formula for doing nothing.”

Not everyone is quite so pessimistic. In an op-ed piece published in the Moscow Times, Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of international relations and political science at San Francisco State University, noted that Putin “likes to cast himself as a follower of Pyotr Stolypin, the powerful prime minister and economic reformer under Nicholas II” who embarked on an ambitious plan to modernize pre-revolutionary Russia’s economy. Putin has presented “his return to power as necessary to complete the [economic] recovery started in 2000,” and "sees his main task as preserving Russia’s statehood and preparing the nation to survive in a new, rapidly changing international environment. Relative to former President Boris Yeltsin, Putin is a counter-revolutionary and state-builder who seeks to safeguard the country against future political disturbances. He is not opposed to modernization, but views it as another pillar for strengthening the state.”

Putin put on his best strong-leader face at a separate meeting with Russian and foreign journalists and academics, according to If some in the West are not happy with the economic and political stability Russia is enjoying, Putin professed to be “really sorry about that.” He went on to compare crisis-ridden Europe with “a hamster that has stuffed his cheeks full of nuts it can’t swallow.” He also announced that Russia will not permit the United States to deploy a missile-defense system and is ready for a confrontation over the issue.

Partisans of the faltering Obama-Medvedev “reset” in relations between the United States and Russia, consider yourselves duly warned. Though not yet in office, President Putin is back – without ever having been truly gone.

Victory may seem like a foregone conclusion, but the opposition group Strategy 31, fearing ballot-box fraud and manipulation, is planning to stage demonstrations on the day of State Duma elections scheduled for Dec. 4, reported The demonstrators, who plan to carry placards with slogans such as “Elections Without Opposition Are A Crime,” will likely be met by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, which has announced plans to bus some thirty thousand activists (recruited via the social networking site VKontakte, and equipped with absentee ballots) to Moscow for a pro-Putin gathering. Voting in Russia may prove to be a contact sport.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Nov/18/2011 15:17 GMT