Modifying Indo-Russian summit format

ONCE A KING ALWAYS A KING: In this Jan. 25, 2007 file photo Prime Minister Manmohan Singh welcomes then Russian President Vladimir Putin at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. Photo: Kamal Narang  

As diplomats finalise the programme for an annual Indo-Russian summit in Moscow from December 6 to 8, the South Block would be well advised to reserve at least as much time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s interaction with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as for his talks with President Dmitry Medvedev.

It will be Dr. Singh’s first visit to Moscow after the power configuration in the Kremlin changed in May 2008 when Mr. Medvedev succeeded Mr. Putin as Russia’s President and appointed his tutor and predecessor to the post of Prime Minister. The two leaders have since been ruling Russia in tandem, but power-sharing is anything but equal, and New Delhi must factor this in.

Mr. Putin remains the undisputed leader in the duumvirate. On surface, each of them has his well-defined spheres of authority. Mr. Medvedev is responsible for foreign and security policies, as well as strategic directions of the country’s development, whereas Mr. Putin looks mainly after the economy. But in practice, Mr. Putin has his hands on all issues and all levers of power. He has further consolidated his position by getting himself elected as the leader of the ruling United Russia Party, which enjoys a three-fourths majority in Parliament. This effectively devalues the President’s constitutional right to sack the Prime Minister.

Mr. Medvedev for his part has not made any attempt to tighten his grip on power, let alone challenge Mr. Putin’s supremacy. He has undertaken hardly any personnel changes even among the Kremlin administration; all his aides are Mr. Putin’s appointees and all his major policy decisions are coordinated with Mr. Putin. This is part of an informal agreement they struck when Mr. Putin promoted Mr. Medvedev to succeed him.

“Everything we had agreed upon at the start of our joint journey is being implemented and is working effectively,” Mr. Putin said in an interview earlier this year. On another occasion he revealed that the agreement also covered the next election scheduled for 2012.

“We will sit down, think it over and reach a joint decision [on who would run for President in 2012] because we are of the same blood and of the same political outlook,” he said.

A survey by the independent Levada Centre in September found that only13 per cent of Russians believe that Mr. Medvedev holds power, while 32 per cent said power was in Mr. Putin’s hands and 48 per cent said power was divided equally between the two. The large proportion of those who believe in equal power sharing is the result of a Kremlin-orchestrated media campaign rather than a reflection of reality. State-controlled TV broadcasts give roughly the same airtime to Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin on a daily basis, with news items about the President’s activities coming first and invariably followed by stories about the Prime Minister.

A recent Forbes magazine ranking of the world’s 67 most powerful people (one for every 100 million people on the planet) gave a more accurate picture of who is in charge in the Kremlin. The magazine placed Mr. Medvedev at No. 43, not only far below Mr. Putin, who ranked third, but even behind Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Mr. Putin’s long-time ally and leader of the “siloviki” clan of security services strongmen.

Mr. Medvedev has sought to cast himself as a more liberal politician than his predecessor with his own forward-looking agenda. He has declared plans to fight Russia’s “endemic corruption,” which grew manifold during Mr. Putin’s presidency, reduce red tape and make the courts independent from executive pressure. He has set the goal of building a more democratic Russia with a genuine multiparty political system and a free press.

However, Mr. Medvedev’s record of the past 18 months shows he lacks the clout or will — or both — to implement his agenda. He has been rich on reformist rhetoric but poor on action on the ground. A Kremlin-drafted anti-corruption package approved by the Parliament last year contained too many loopholes and experts dismissed it as totally inadequate. In fact, corruption has increased since Mr. Medvedev took office last year. The average size of a bribe in the low levels of bureaucracy has more than tripled in one year from 8,000 roubles in 2008 to 27,000 roubles in 2009, according to the Interior Ministry.

A pledge to combat “legal nihilism”, massive disregard for the law, primarily by government officials, was a highlight of Mr. Medvedev’s election campaign. Seven months into his presidency, Mr. Medvedev reiterated his resolve to root out lawlessness in his first state-of-the-nation address. But corrupt law enforcers knew better than fear Mr. Medvedev’s warnings. Three weeks after the President delivered his maiden address Interior Ministry officers arrested a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, after he presented evidence implicating them in a theft of more than 5 billion roubles from the Russian treasury. The lawyer was denied bail and medical aid despite deteriorating health and held in horrible conditions in a Moscow jail for almost a year without trial till he died in prison earlier this month. His colleagues called it a premeditated murder.

In his first state-of-the-nation address Mr. Medvedev also hit out at Russian bureaucracy that “meddles in the electoral process.” At a closed door meeting with the leaders of the ruling United Russia Party earlier this year he warned them against trying to rig elections. Six months later he received a slap in the face when regional elections held across Russia were blatantly falsified in favour of the Putin-led United Russia, which swept the vote. Public opinion surveys found that just 3 per cent of respondents believe the elections were fair and democratic. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev denounced the vote as a “mockery of democracy.” Despite angry protests by the usually docile opposition, Mr. Medvedev refused to denounce the fraud and described the election as “orderly.” He did criticize the ruling party at its congress several weeks later, euphemistically referring to “bad political habits” and “democratic procedures mixed with administrative ones,” but failed to support changes in the electoral laws proposed by opposition leaders and experts to reduce vote rigging and encourage political competition.

In this year’s state-of-the-nation address Mr. Medvedev called for a sweeping technological modernisation of Russia, but offered no action plan. The President’s controversial proposals for banning incandescent bulbs in favour of ecologically hazardous energy-saving lamps and reducing the number of time zones in the country raised quite a few eyebrows.

A recent scandal with the sacking of Mr. Medvedev’s powerful media adviser Mikhail Lesin for “abuse of office” provided a revealing insight into the power balance in the Medvedev-Putin tandem. According to Kremlin sources, Mr. Lesin, a former information minister and long-time ally of Mr. Putin, lost his job for telling state-owned TV companies to do what he, not the President, told them to do.

Mr. Medvedev’s apparent indecisiveness has disappointed many in Russia who hoped he would become a reformist President.

“Medvedev is simply the more liberal side of Putin’s brain,” one analyst said. “The two rule together, and Putin rules both of them.”

“Medvedev’s last word on everything is Putin’s word,” another political commentator quipped. “Medvedev is a member of Putin’s team, not vice versa.”

In recent months Mr. Medvedev, however, has grown increasingly critical of Mr. Putin’s legacy and policies. He has railed against state-run corporations promoted by his predecessor and bemoaned “the primitive structure” of the Russia economy, its “humiliating dependence on raw materials” and “shamefully low competitiveness.”

Some experts deemed this signalled Mr. Medvedev’s attempt to emerge from Mr. Putin’s shadow. They said Mr. Medvedev still has two-and-a-half years of his presidential term to take the reins of power and the verdict is still out on who will lead Russia after 2012.Others, however, argue that there is no credible competition between the two, and Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin are merely addressing different audiences. While Mr. Medvedev is targeting the younger and wealthier West-oriented sections of the Russian society, as well as foreign audiences, Mr. Putin is addressing the more conservative, low-to-middle income middle age and senior people.

Be that as it may, under the current dispensation Mr. Medvedev does the talking and Mr. Putin does the doing. It may not be a bad idea therefore for New Delhi to modify the format of annual Indo-Russian summits and supplement the Singh-Medvedev summits with annual meetings between the Prime Ministers of the two countries. This will not only help intensify bilateral interaction at the top level, but also be in line with the division of responsibility for international contacts in the Medvedev-Putin duo. While Mr. Medvedev usually meets with Presidents of foreign countries, Mr. Putin interacts with Prime Ministers.

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