Vienna, January 20 – When a Vladivostok interior ministry official refused to break up a demonstration there at the end of December, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin demanded that he be fired, but since that time, President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken out in support of the official who remains in office.
Such a split between the two men could quickly become not only a measure of the shifting balance of power in Moscow but also an indication of whether the rising tide of popular anger about the government’s inability to deal with impact of the economic crisis will become a political challenge to the central authorities as a whole.
The story so far is this: Andrey Nikolayev, the head of the interior ministry administration in Primorsky kray, refused to obey an order from above to disperse the December 21 protest by the owners of foreign-made cars, forcing Moscow to dispatch internal troops from other regions as far away as Daghestan (www.sobkorr.ru/news/497453B861647.html).
As a result of his insubordination, Putin demanded that Nikolayev be fired, but “The New Times” reported yesterday that “President Medvedev unexpectedly spoke up on [his] behalf,” raising questions not only about the policies of the two with regard to the use of force against the population but even more about their relative power.
According to that source and to “Russian Newsweek” which was published the day before, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, ordered that Nikolayev resign, but Nikolayev not only refused to do so but threatened to go to court if Surkov (and Putin behind him) pressed the case.
In addition to the way in which this case provides a measure of the situation in Moscow, there are reasons to believe that it may be only the tip of the iceberg of the problems the center now faces. There are reports that the chief of the Amur oblast militia, Major General Yury Fokin, “also refused to fulfill an order from Moscow” about the demonstration.
And Moscow commentator Mikhail Delyagin has even said that Moscow was not able to find OMON units “loyal to the government “anywhere beyond the Urals, not in Western Siberia and not in Irkutsk.” And he added that the militiamen in Vladivostok understood that if they employed force, they would put themselves at risk of being attacked.
If these media reports are correct – and besides the fact that Moscow did send forces in from the outside and that Nikolayev at least as of today remains in office – then Moscow potentially faces a far more serious problem, especially if those at the highest levels in Moscow are divided on what should be done.
Given his past, Putin clearly believes that using force is the best, perhaps the only way to try to control what is rapidly becoming a potentially explosive situation across the country, while Medvedev appears to believe that there are far greater risks from giving orders that lower-level officials will refuse to obey.