Thursday, September 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Will Georgia Reinforce Putin’s Power or Strengthen Medvedev’s Hand?

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 4 – Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have reignited the Moscow guessing game about the personal and power relationship between incumbent Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor, the man who selected him, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Many commentators have suggested that the Georgian events have shown that Medvedev takes his marching orders from Putin. Others have said that a conflict of this kind has driven the two together, leading Medvedev to sacrifice some of his reformist plants. And still others have suggested that the Georgian events have laid the groundwork for a split between the two men.
No one except perhaps the two men themselves knows which of these scenarios is accurate. But two articles this week, one an interview with Russian novelist Boris Strugatsky and a second providing statistics on the number of times each of the two leaders was referred to in the Russian media provide some interesting grist for this particular rumor mill.
In an interview featured in “Novaya gazeta v Sankt-Peterburg,” Strugatsky argued that the war between Russia and Georgia had “killed the last hope for a ‘Medvedev’ thaw,” something many in Russia and the West had been hoping for ever since the technocrat replaced the KGB officer (
According to Strugatsky, “small victorious wars are harmful to an authoritarian state” because they then act as if they have won the right to do whatever they please “over their own economy and in general over their own people,” an attitude that does not bode well for Russia’s future.
Some have suggested that because of the war, the Russian media has been creating a new worldview among Russians, the novelist says. But that is not the case. The media “are supporting a worldview that already exists. And our worldview – that of the mass population – remains totalitarian: ‘They must fear us.’ ‘We are the best.’” and so on.
Consequently, no one should have “any illusions” about the future. “Ahead are the Great Re-Statification and Decisive Militarization with all the ensuing consequences relative to rights and freedoms. [Medvedev’s] thaw thus ended without having begun. We already have returned to the beginning of the 1980s. God forbid that this doesn’t take us back to the end of the 1930s.”
A second article, in this week’s “Argumenty nedeli” by Mikhail Tul’sky, addresses the issue of the impact of the Georgian conflict on the status of President Medvedev and particularly on the attention he has received in the media relative to that of his predecessor Prime Minister Putin (
According to Tul’sky, polls taken by the Public Opinion Foundation showed that the percentage of Russians who said they trust Medvedev rose from 45 to 54 percent over the two weeks the military conflict lasted with the share saying they partially trust him and partially not falling from 28 to 24 percent and those who completely mistrust him from 14 to 11 percent.
Over the same period, these surveys found, trust in Putin rose from 68 to 72 percent, figures that are much higher than those for Medvedev. But Tul’sky pointed out, the rates of growth of the popularity of the current president significantly exceed the rates of growth in the popularity of his predecessor,” a pattern that could change the balance between them.
One reason for Medvedev’s relative rise, the “Argumenty nedeli” journalist says, is that “in August 2008, for the first time, President Dmitry Medvedev was cited much more often in the Russian mass media than was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” a striking development given that until the Georgian conflict, Medvedev had never approached Putin’s numbers.
But in August, according to the Interfax news agency data system, Medvedev was mentioned in the Russian mass media 6635 times, while Putin was mentioned only 4662. Some might say Putin arranged this so Medvedev could take the blame if things had gone wrong, but others are sure to suggest Medvedev may enjoy the attention and the power that may go with it.

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