Medvedev and Putin Disagree on Libya! The End is Surely Nigh!

"PotAto, PotOto. TomAto, tomOto. Let's call the whole thing off."

Putin and Medvedev disagree on the NATO air strikes on Libya!  Sound the alarms!  The tandem is collapsing! Oh, the horror!  The horror!

Yesterday Putin caused a media storm when he likened the military intervention into the Libyan civil war to “a medieval call for a crusade.”  A few hours later, Medvedev shot back with “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations — such as ‘crusade’ and so on.” Without mentioning Putin’s name directly, he then called the “crusade” reference “unacceptable” and voiced his moral support for the UN no-fly zone, and by extension Western notions of humanitarian interventionism.  But what else could Medvedev say? He’s responsible for foreign policy, and Russia’s abstention in the UN Security Council was a de-facto voice of support without commitment.  To backtrack now would, like Sergei Lavrov’s concern about civilian casualties, make Russia look silly.  They knew what was on the table when they decided to keep quiet.

Moreover, to not respond to Putin, whose word everyone inside and outside Russia hangs on, would reaffirm that Medvedev is exactly what most think he already is: Putin’s lap dog.  He’s been in office three years now, and his days sulking in Putin’s shadow are long over. It’s just that most of us have yet to accept the truth that Putin’s and Medvedev’s “differences in style” can indeed be reconciled into a Hegelian whole, and Russian politics can be, ahem, normal.

This of course isn’t the first time Medvedev and Putin have disagreed.  As Kommersant helpfully reminds us, they butted heads in June 2009 over entering the WTO as part of the customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, or go it alone.  In September 2010, they disagreed over grain exports and then that December over the second Khodorkovsky trial and the nature of the USSR.  Most recently, they had differing statements about the investigation of the terrorist bombings in Domodedovo.  All of them were much to do about nothin’.  Much to the disappointment of pretty much everyone, the sky did not fall.

Still, the difference in opinion has produced a lot of chatter and speculation.  There is good reason for this.  First, unlike the above incidents, there is no grey area when it comes to foreign policy.  This is exclusively the President’s turf.  Second, and perhaps because it’s his turf, Medvedev’s rebuke was quick, clear, and forceful.  Medvedev’s message: Back in your yard, big dog.

That said, the reaction to two alpha-dogs pissing around their territory speaks to the larger issue of how disagreements within the tandem are interpreted.  I’m not sure if the repeated hoopla is based in real substance, a desire to see tandem collapse, or a strange assumption that Russian politics can’t sustain difference.  I tend to think it is the latter.  Many assume that Russian politics is monolithic and monochromatic, and any sign of cracks will inevitably lead to the utter collapse of the entire edifice.  However, while this view is based in historical-cultural assumptions about how Russia is ruled, it is also one facilitated by the powers that be themselves.  The fact that political disagreements among the big boys are rarely aired in public, and when they are, quickly retreated behind closed doors, gives the impression that they are part of one uni-mind or can’t sustain difference because their collective leadership is based on a fragile coalition of players.

And because of they are rarely public, disagreements in the tandem have great signaling power.  Putin may be coy about running for President in 2012, but his supporters are going to get increasingly impatient especially since it is clearer and clearer that Medvedev is going seek a second term.  So while these public moments might not have any real meaning to Medvedev and Putin beyond a simple difference of opinion, the factions that support them might blow them out of proportion.  As insider Gleb Pavlovsky told Interfax, “Putin’s statement created an occasion for people who are searching for a split in the tandem.  He unwittingly sent a conflicting signal to those who are searching for the possibility to unite against Medvedev and his policies. Such a signal was a mistake by the Prime Minister because it was not only seized by opponents of Medvedev but also opponents of Putin, and everyone who wants a split in the tandem to destabilize the entire political situation.”  He went on to add, “This signal is really unusual.  We see and hear how the chorus of Medvedev opponents, including opponents in the government apparatus, and also in the executive and legislative branches, who are afraid up until now to speak publicly, can now exclaim “Let Putin be our leader and political chieftain!”

Politics however is mainly about appearance and interpretation, especially in our soundbite ridden decontextualized world. Therefore while the differences between Medvedev and Putin might be “stylistic,” their unleashing into the similacrum might, in Pavlovsky’s words, become “dangerous.”  This is why I think that there has been a concerted effort to downplay any real difference between the two, even when it’s meaningless.  And it is especially imperative to do so in this case. The bombing of Libya ignites the passions of Russians who, like Putin, remember the bombing of Serbia and hold deep justifiable suspicions of NATO and the projection of Western power.  So it is no surprise that Putin declared that his statement was his personal opinion, and his spokesman Dmitrii Peskov reiterated this fact to the press. Nor is it astonishing that other experts have been quick to say that there is no fundamental break between the two. Plus, as Stas Kucher wrote on his blog, the suggestion that there is any real split between these “blood brothers” is naive.  No matter how many different cords the two strum, the song remains the same.

Perhaps this public moment will finally convince people that these disagreements between Medvedev and Putin are a good thing.  First, they show that there can be coexistence with difference. And given that in my opinion the Russian state is haunted by an enduring sense of fragility, this will add a bit to its confidence.  Second, these tiffs, if you can really even call them that, at the very least open the possibility for political pluralism and open public discourse.  If this incident sends any signal, it should be that.  The more the political elite sees that every ripple in the tandem’s armor isn’t reason to go to the mattresses is to the benefit of everyone, especially themselves.

Image: Свободная пресса