Numbers 3, 42 and 43

The western press often alerts us to events in the Kremlin that suggest that president Dmitry Medvedev is asserting his own style of leadership, prioritising the rule of law, democracy, etc etc etc, against prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Typically such stories tell us that Medvedev, a lawyer by profession, is keen to distance himself from the law-unto-himself style of former KGB agent Putin. Much of this Putin-Medvedev battle is, in my view, a mirage in the eyes of the western chattering classes who just wish Russia’s rulers would be more like their own.

The recent sacking of Anatoly Bagmet, an official in the prosecutor’s office, gave rise to just such reports. The Financial Times wrote it up as a possible sign of Medvedevite action to assert the “rule of law” against Putinist legal nihilism.

The FT said that intra-Kremlin brouhaha around the case “threatens the delicate ruling tandem” of Medvedev and Putin.

Bagmet had worked on just the sort of cases that make western financiers trying to make money in Russia very nervous. He headed the inquiry into Sergei Storchak, the deputy finance minister charged with fraud and jailed in 2008, and was also involved in the savage official assault on lawyers acting for Hermitage Capital Management, the US-controlled investment firm whose boss, Bill Browder, has fallen out with the Russian authorities.

The most important point about Bagmet, however, is that he was reinstated three days after he was fired.

So even if the FT is right that Bagmet was dismissed in a law-upholding Medvedevite clear-out, the conclusion to be drawn is that this clear-out only lasted three days, until Bagmet was restored to his post by the general prosector, Yuri Chaika.

The supposed rift between Medvedev and Putin now seems as ephemeral and temporary as on previous occasions when eager western eyes were sure they had divined that it was opening up.  

Putin and Medvedev are members of a team that runs Russian government, in my view. Medvedev is not the senior member of this team and doesn’t seek to be. Of course as a lawyer he has a different way of looking at the world from his colleagues who come from the security services; so, notably, does finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, an economist.

But the idea that Medvedev is set to take Russian government in a fundamentally different direction, with more of the “rule of law” beloved by the western establishment, is over-hyped, I think.

Reviewing the Putin-Medvedev alliance in 2009, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti observed that spats such as that over Bagmet had more to do with members of the Putin and Medvedev teams battling it out for bureaucratic elbow-room than any deep-going rift between the guys at the top. The piece had one of their wonderful sarcastic headlines: “Almost pluralism”.

Compared to the “nasty Putin nice Medvedev” school of Kremlinology, even Forbes’s recently-published list of the world’s most powerful leaders (yawn) seems accurate.

It has Putin at no. 3 behind Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. Medvedev is at no. 43, just behind Igor Sechin – deputy prime minister for industry, chairman of Rosneft oil company and the most powerful former KGB man in Moscow after Putin – at no. 42. They are the only Russians in the list of 67. That seems about right.

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