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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Khodorkovsky Verdict: The Power Struggle Is Now On

On December 27, 2010, the Moscow court began reading its verdict. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and leading industrialist, has been sentenced to a second term. He will not be released until 2017, well after the 2012 presidential election. The Khodorkovsky verdict represents a slap in the face to President Dmitry Medvedev’s “modernization” program, which includes an enhanced rule of law.

Currently, the “tandem” of Medvedev (President) and Putin (Prime Minister) is running Russia. Supposedly, the two will at some point sit down to decide which of them will be the presidential candidate for the 2012 election. Throughout his term, Medvedev has talked in general terms about modernization, corruption, and rule of law with only veiled attacks on Putin. The Russian and international press was shocked by Medvedev’s attack on Putin at his press conference following the Khodorkovsky verdict. Medvedev rebuked Putin, not by name, for his recent remark about the Khodorkovsky case ( “Thieves belong in jail”). In countries with a rule of law, high government officials must refrain from judgments about cases before the courts, declared Medvedev. Medvedev also spoke about the need for more democracy and airing of political ideas, going even so far as to mention the name of Gary Kasparov, who Putin despises. Medvedev has gone from the subtle to the direct.

It is my guess that Medvedev will decide not to contest the 2012 presidential election. Although Putin’s public-opinion ratings are falling and the country is less supportive of a strong state to bring about order, he will realize that his chances are too slim and that he is too weak to prevent Putin’s third term. In such a contest, a freed Khodorkovsky would have been a great asset for Medvedev as a voluble witness to the corruption of the Putin government. Putin cannot allow Khodorkovsky to be a free man.

Although Medvedev has surrounded himself with forward thinking business men and politicians, they can scarcely compete with Putin’s control of the “power” ministries and of oligarchic businesses. “Power” ministries is a peculiar Russian term for those agencies that can arrest, convict, spy, control resources, determine what is said in the press, and assassinate, if need be.

By 2012, Medvedev will likely be a much more popular figure than Putin, especially if Russia’s economic performance remains in the doldrums, which it likely will given the massive levels of corruption. If it were not Putin in the prime minister position, Medvedev would have replaced the prime minister with someone new.

By 2012, Putin will have lost the luster of high popular-opinion ratings (If the rating agencies remain honest), which served as a justification for his “strong hand.” An unpopular Putin can still win easily because his “power men”, including his crony recently appointed the new mayor of Moscow, can deliver the votes and intimidate potential opponents.

Since Lenin’s death in January of 1924, there has never been a change in power that has not been accompanied by a purge in which the old leader’s cronies are removed from their positions. A Medvedev victory would mean the loss of money, power, and privilege (and even jail) for those currently running Russia. This is a threat they cannot afford. Putin holds the upper hand. Medvedev’s cards are weak. He will likely fold when the time comes.

Does Medvedev hold any strong cards. He does, but they are risky to play. Presumably, he would have “kompromat” on Putin’s multi-billion dollar wealth. Also, as President, he has the authority to fire Putin and his government, but in so doing he would run the risk of impeachment in an all-out war. No, the likely outcome is that he will fold. He will probably be the one to announce Putin’s candidacy with a big forced smile on his face.

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