20 years under Putin: a timeline

In April, a video of a closed meeting chaired by Vladimir Putin appeared on the Lifenews.ru website, which is known to be close to the Kremlin. This video creates the impression that Dmitri Medvedev’s government is about to be dismissed. The resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov can be considered a warning to the cabinet. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the options that await the Medvedev government.



Rumors about Dmitri Medvedev's dismissal are not surprising. This had been discussed even before he became prime minister: informed sources then hinted that Putin was about to abandon his promise to make Medvedev head of government. After the prime minister's appointment, not a month went by without leaks about his forthcoming departure. However, the government continues to work. Only the attacks on it are becoming increasingly sophisticated, as evidenced by the video on Lifenews.ru.

It is important to note that Lifenews.ru had long been fulfilling a special political and informational role. Within the opposition, this website is called the "toilet tank" of the security services. Lifenews.ru is used as a key outlet for publishing compromising material about opposition leaders. It is headed by Aram Gabrelyanov, director-general of the News Media holding company and deputy director-general of the National Media Group, which also owns Izvestia, a newspaper known for its anti-Medvedev stance. The National Media Group is controlled by Putin's close friend Yuri Kovalchuk, which gives Gabrelyanov protection both from the oligarchs and from those close to the government. He himself has repeatedly declared his absolute loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Thus, Lifenews.ru is simultaneously carrying out two assignments:  it supports the anti-Medvedev campaign and publishes material to discredit the opposition. It would not be a wild guess to surmise that both campaigns are being waged on behalf of one and the same client, and that this client operates from within the Kremlin.

The anti-Medvedev coalition in the Kremlin is becoming increasingly bold in its attacks on the prime minister.

That is why the scandalous video on Lifenews.ru instantly became a sensation. It shows a closed part of a meeting chaired by Putin, which took place a day before Medvedev's address to the State Duma. The subject of the meeting was the resettlement of people from dilapidated and unsafe housing—one of the most topical social problems, which has remained unsolved for years. Having asked to switch off the cameras, the president started criticizing those present in rather harsh terms. Fifteen people took part in the meeting, including four regional governors (Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, Alexei Orlov, Alexander Zhilkin and Vladimir Gruzdev), four cabinet ministers (Anton Siluanov, Dmitry Kozak, Andrei Belousov and Igor Slunyaev) and seven officials of the presidential administration. “The quality of the work is worthless; everything is being done superficially…. If we work like that then not a damn thing will get done. But if we work more persistently and professionally with an understanding of what has to be done, we can do it," Putin said.  “If we don’t do this, we have to admit that either I am not working effectively, or all of you are working badly and you all should leave. I want to draw your attention to the fact that today I am leaning towards the second option.”

A retraction quickly followed from the president's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov.  He declared that Putin had been criticizing the governors and there were no plans to sack the government. He also threatened to sever relations with Lifenews.ru. The press secretary could hardly have responded differently to the "incident." It is also clear that the leak's authors were ready for such a reaction.  From their offices in the Kremlin they could see that there would be no serious consequences for Gabrelyanov.

The appearance of the video indicated once more that the anti-Medvedev coalition in the Kremlin is becoming increasingly bold in its attacks on the prime minister. Under such circumstances, it is interesting to discuss the three possible scenarios facing Medvedev and his cabinet. None of them promises anything good for the government’s team.

The first scenario, and the least harmful one for the government, is "functional neutralization." This consists in gradually removing key decision-making functions from the cabinet and transferring them to the Kremlin.  It appears that this scenario is now being realized, and it could mean the cabinet’s gradual oblivion.

Almost from the outset, Putin introduced direct presidential management of the cabinet. Vladimir Putin is today the de facto prime minister, because no key decision can be made without his agreement and approval, which seriously slows down the process of discussing and coming to conclusions. He has a rather low opinion of the government, which has been repeatedly demonstrated by his criticism of ministers during various meetings. As a result, the president has been shifting state functions to informal "superstructures." In mid-April, Putin agreed to hold an economic meeting in a new format that included not only ministers with economic portfolios, but also representatives of the presidential administration and experts. In practice, this means that the president doubts the government's competence and its ability to make effective decisions. Putin’s opening words at the April meeting demonstrated his dissatisfaction with Medvedev's work. The president noted the government's inefficiency in protecting the country from the negative impact of the world economic crisis. He had praise only  for the extractive sector, which de jure is supervised by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, a Medvedev ally, but de facto—by Putin’s man, Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft-TNK-BP consolidated company.


The departure of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov (right) can be seen as a warning to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.


The April economic meeting, which could be considered a session of the "super-government," left Medvedev with merely a technocratic role.  During the meeting, prominent roles were given to former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and dirigiste economist Sergei Glazyev, who has recently proposed abandoning privatization and increasing the state’s role in the economy.  An ideological discussion within the regime on which economic model of development to follow is unfolding between monetarists, such as Kudrin, and dirigistes, such as Glazyev and Sechin. Medvedev's relations with both of these camps are rather complicated. Besides, bureaucratically, he is not allowed to take part in these discussions.

The fact that after the "super-government's" meeting Putin tasked his advisor, Elvira Nabiullina (the future chairman of Russia's Central Bank), and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov with drafting proposals on stimulating economic growth, speaks for itself. The Kremlin sees Shuvalov as the cabinet’s "operations supervisor" and works with him directly. In this situation, Medvedev plays a merely representative role, which consists in making hollow reports to the State Duma and subjecting himself to criticism by the lawmakers.

It is worth mentioning that the fuel and energy complex—the fundamental sector of the Russian economy—is almost entirely under the influence of Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who supervises the relevant presidential commission. Medvedev's government has recently lost its fight to liberalize the access of private companies to the Russian shelf. Large Russian oil companies had pressed for liberalization, and in response the Energy Ministry was developing the project under Dvorkovich's supervision. However, Sechin, supported by Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller, opposed the idea. According to Kommersant newspaper, Dvorkovich signed an order to close down the program on exploring and developing the continental shelf. According to the newspaper's source within the government, this reflects the current state of affairs, as one can see from the fact that almost all the proposals on liberalizing the access to the shelf had already disappeared from the Energy Ministry's project. In place of the abandoned government program, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is seeking to expand the amount of geological exploration permitted to the state-owned companies under already-granted licenses. Rosneft and Gazprom now hold 12 and 17 licenses respectively, which cover 80 percent of the potential reserves of the Russian Arctic shelf. In other words, the cabinet's functional powers have been de facto taken away and transferred to the Kremlin or to state-connected "oligarchs."

The second scenario is the "neutralization" of government personnel, and it consists in depriving Medvedev of his own team. In the short run, it is likely that the Kremlin will proceed with a cabinet reshuffle. Thus, Putin will be able to solve two problems simultaneously: to tie the prime minister's hands by depriving him of loyal people in key positions, and to fill the government with Putinists, who will be beholden to the president and his administration. This scenario is rather risky because it can result in public conflicts within the government.

Whether Surkov was fired or left on his own accord is unimportant. What is important is that the exodus of Medvedev’s people from the cabinet has begun.

The resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov can be considered the first step in the realization of this scenario. Surkov lost his job after a Kremlin meeting on the poor implementation of Putin’s election decrees. It is doubtful, however, that this was the real reason for Surkov’s departure—more likely, he could no longer withstand the pressure he was under as a result of the campaign directed against the Skolkovo project. Vladimir Markin, press spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, had openly threatened the deputy premier with dismissal. Whether Surkov was fired or left on his own accord is unimportant. What is important is that the exodus of Medvedev’s people from the cabinet has begun.

The third scenario is the dismissal of Dmitri Medvedev himself, along with his cabinet. This is what a wide coalition of the prime minister's opponents within and close to the Kremlin has been trying to achieve for the past year. For now, this scenario appears to be rather improbable: the government still has to do a number of planned "foolish things,” for which the president will be able to blame the incompetent cabinet.

Meanwhile, Putin is busy looking for a "shadow" prime minister. Until now, the politically weak Elvira Nabiullina has been fulfilling this role. She will soon move to the Central Bank, and it is still unclear who will step into her shoes. The media regularly discusses rumors about an imminent offer to Alexei Kudrin of a top post in the Kremlin. However, in the eighteen months since the dismissal of the finance minister, who is associated with an entire era of Russian budget policy, not one of the rumors about his return to the government has proven to be accurate. The fate of Dmitri Medvedev, whose situation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable, largely depends on who will replace Nabiullina.