Feb 25 2008
Today’s Johnson’s Russia List (#40, 25 February 2008) included a piece of bad history from Roy Medvedev, usually a much better historian. A Reuters piece
by Christian Lowe explored the dynamics of the relationship soon to be created by Dmitrii Medvedev’s forthcoming election: President Putin becomes a mere prime minister; First Deputy Prime Minister D. Medvedev becomes president.
Not only is the question of how Putin and D. Medvedev will get along an important one for Russia’s future–it’s got theoretical and intellectual interest to boot. I’ve always been interested in the dynamics of presidents and prime ministers in the weird semi-presidential systems created by post-Soviet states, but I think this one may be a first: an immensely powerful president accepting a demotion to work for his former subordinate.
How will this dual power work in practice? Beats me. But Roy Medvedev thinks it will be just fine. Why? Historical precedent. Nicholas II worked well with Stolypin, R. Medvedev claims, and Brezhnev worked well with Kosygin. I call foul.
First Nicholas II. Though committed to autocracy, he was a weak personality, disliked confrontation, and was forced into accepting Stolypin’s power by the threat of imminent regime collapse. None of this is true of Putin. And I don’t see Nicholas and Stolypin as a sterling example of cooperation. By the time Stolypin was assassinated in Kiev in 1913, Nicholas was about to fire him. And indeed, while only the glassy-eyed conspiracy theorists claim that Nicholas himself wanted Stolypin dead, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that figures from Nicholas’ regime were behind the killing. There’s no doubt that the assassin had been working for the Okhrana, though as a single, double, or triple agent is open to discussion.
Second Brezhnev. The article specifically quotes R. Medvedev as claiming “for a decade until he resigned for health reasons in 1980, Kosygin controlled the economy and represented Moscow abroad while Brezhnev ran the party.” Not quite. I’d concede that Kosygin as prime minister certainly had responsibility for the Soviet economy from 1964-1980, and early on took important foreign policy roles, like brokering a settlement of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War and meeting with Lyndon Johnson in Glassboro, NJ in 1967.
But those roles went away. Brezhnev quickly eclipsed Kosygin on questions of foreign policy. No one suggests that Kosygin had anywhere near the influence on foreign and defense policy that Andropov, Ustinov, or Gromyko had, let alone Brezhnev himself. And while Kosygin had the power in the mid-1960s to implement his socialist-market reforms, he lacked the clout to carry them through, in large part because of Brezhnev’s unwillingness to back them. Kosygin was a lame duck by the mid-1970s.
In other words, I still don’t see any good examples of dual power working in Russian politics. Indeed, the standard meaning of dual power, the February to October 1917 interregnum, does NOT bode well, and at least some of the dynamics are quite similar to what we’ll have in Russia as of March: real power in the hands of Putin (like the Soviets); formal legitimacy for D. Medvedev (like the provisional government). 1917 and 2008 are very different times, but the division between power and responsibility is inherently unhealthy.