If you haven’t seen this, watch it. Jump to 2:20 for the fireworks. President Medvedev fires his finance minister, on live TV no less. But even more over-the-top, and a super clue to Russia’s parlous state today, is Kudrin’s ‘you’re not in command’ response. Even after Medvedev lectures him about the constitution and governing in accord with it, Kudrin replies that he won’t resign until the prime minister (Putin) tells him to. Hah! In the clash of Russian bureaucratic machismo, the head of state loses! That had me laughing even more than Medvedev’s preening about Russia’s commitment to democratic rule and the constitution, as well as his control-freak, Al Haig ‘I’m in charge here,’ firing of a minister on TV. Those three things together in just 3 minutes make US tea party-driven political dysfunction look normal. If we’re in decline, at least the Russians are declining faster.
This vid is pretty much ‘smoking gun’ evidence that the real power in Russia is Putin, and that its ‘institutions’ are a joke. Medvedev took a huge chance axing a finance minister (normally one of the most important positions in a cabinet) in such a public venue. It all but invited pushback if Medvedev is just a figurehead.(Maybe that’s why Medvedev did it; just to see if his suspicions were true.) Kudrin probably figured he had nothing to lose, so why not go to mattresses by invoking the godfather? I imagine Putin was livid when Kudrin let the cat out of the bag so publicly – although actually, maybe Putin just doesn’t give a d— anymore. We all strongly suspected it was a faux-constitutional charade with Medvedev anyway, but this is probably the most public sign from within the government that Putin reigns.
In any reasonably normal presidential system, the cabinet, including the PM, serves at the president’s discretion. If you get fired, you go. And if you get axed on TV no less, then it’s just about your national duty to immediately say ok and then apologize in shame. Instead Kudrin humiliated Medvedev and revealed to all the sham authority of his faux-presidency. In fact, Medvedev should be so embarrassed that I wonder why he would want to stay on as PM when Putin re-takes the presidency next year. He just looks like a lackey. He could actually be a decent contender for the presidency in a post-Putin Russia if he can avoid the taint. Too bad, because he genuinely seems to want to change Russia for the better.
If this wasn’t enough, did anyone notice how little outrage or even comment followed Putin’s announcement he would ‘run for’ (i.e., assume) the presidency again in 2012? I get a whole bunch of daily news feeds – Foreign Policy, the Council of Foreign Relations, the New York Times, Slate, the Financial Times, etc. – and there was barely a peep from them. No outraged articles claiming that Putin has just proven Russian democracy to be a sham; no op-eds from Russia hands calling him the ‘new czar;’ no retrospective time-lines on the decline of Russian democracy from Yeltsin through today’s rigged kleptocracy. I did like this, but I really didn’t see much else from the usual suspects. Even the Economist, which I think has been (wonderfully) relentless in exposing the fraudulent, sivoliki non-democracy of the Kremlin, didn’t cough up a top-line cover story on its webpage. (Read this and this, for the minimalist, we-all-knew-this-was-coming-so-what’s-the-point-in-covering-it-that-much-anymore Economist coverage.) Like the Economist, the National Interest (which writes a lot and well on Russia, IMO) didn’t even bother with outrage or dirges for Russian democracy; instead it was just corruption-as-usual.
As with Kudrin’s insolent response to his nominal boss, this journalistic silence says a lot actually. We all have such low expectations of Russia now, that this sort of constitutional gimmickry – which would produce global headlines if it happened in a real democracy – is just written off as more of the same. We discount Russia so much, we so expect fatuous nationalist posturing and neoczarism, that no one even bothers to care. Russians should take note of this. The Kremlin is desperate for global attention and status recognition. Yet the clownish ‘bromance’ and secrecy at the top tells everyone its just more buffonery; what investor will take her cash to Russia when even the president can side-step the constitution? Russia is astonishly badly governed. Everyone knows it desperately needs to clean government, a circulation of elites, real elections, and economic diversification. This has just been delayed by another 8 years of strut, posturing, corruption, and foreign policy hijinks.
I say this with some sympathy too. I studied Russian for several years and completed summer language programs there. I had a great time, and Russia clearly has deep human capital resources from a very serious education system. But this is being squandered, and Putin has just guaranteed yet another rough, stagnant, erratic 12 years (!) for Russian consumers and foreign partners. Russia will fall further behind China; Americans will remain hostile; the much-sought visa-free travel for Russians to the EU won’t materialize. Russia’s position in the BRICS will be less and less tenable as Russia emerges more fully as a ‘oil-rentier state with nukes.’ (Helmust Schmidt once famously described the Soviet Union as ‘Upper Volta with missiles.’) This is why I scarcely even write about Russia; there’s just not that much to be said. Too bad.