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Robert Coalson

Robert Coalson

Posted January 30, 2009 | 09:56 AM (EST)

Playing Devil's Advocate for Putin


Maybe tandems are supposed to teeter.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with opposition journalists and makes surprisingly enlightened utterances while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is out of the country. Medvedev's supporters in the Duma are stalling and trying to amend a draft law submitted by Putin's supporters that would expand the definition of treason.

The president's economic advisers reportedly have views on how to handle the country's economic crisis that differ from those of the prime minister's team. Medvedev has even leveled some mild public criticism at the government's policies, prompting Putin's spokesman to go to the media and explain that such criticism is "perfectly natural." Putin reportedly wanted a senior Interior Ministry official in the Far East sacked for balking at orders forcibly to disperse demonstrations, while Medvedev said no.

These and other droppings from the Kremlin have led many observers toward the conclusion that the tandem in Russia is on the verge of breaking down. I myself wrote here about the country's "teetering tandem."

But what if teetering is a natural feature of a normally functioning diarchy? What if the examples cited above are actually signs that the governing system is functioning and that it has more political flexibility and resilience than we previously expected?

The way you look at the evidence, I think, depends on what you think "tandem" rule actually is. Many of us proceeded from the indisputable fact that Putin was the dominant figure in Russian politics when the tandem was installed and that he remains the dominant figure now to conclude that the so-called tandem is really just a fig leaf covering up Putin's ongoing autocratic control. Perhaps what we are seeing now in Russia -- where the ruling system is undergoing genuine stress from the bleak economic circumstances -- is the breakdown of the fig-leaf theory, more than the collapse of the diarchy.

Continue reading at RFE/RL's The Power Vertical.