Two years after the inauguration of President Dmitry Medvedev, analysts say his powerful predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still wields control over Russia’s foreign policy -- especially the Kremlin’s efforts to reassert influence in the former Soviet Union.
Legally speaking, this should not be the case. Under the Russian Constitution, the president oversees foreign policy while the prime minister handles the economy and most domestic matters. But few Kremlin-watchers believe that Moscow’s foreign policy is shaped by Medvedev, who took office on May 7, 2008, and is now marking the halfway point of his presidential term.
“The leading role still clearly belongs to Putin. This reflects the unspoken agreement that was reached between Putin and Medvedev,” said Yevgeny Volk, an independent political analyst in Moscow.
“There have been some nuances and accents that have changed since Medvedev’s arrival. But these are mostly stylistic differences,” Volk added.
Medvedev regularly flies around the world to attend summits and international meetings in far-flung countries. But his role at such events is often ceremonial, while Putin, often working behind the scenes, appears to achieve the meatiest results. And that plays into the “good cop, bad cop” pattern that has long characterized the two men’s relationship: Medvedev, with his image as a liberal modernizer, is more palatable to the West, while Putin is the tough guy ready to play hardball to assert Russia’s interests.
On April 8, for instance, Medvedev was in Prague signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with US President Barack Obama -- a historic, though largely ceremonial event -- while Putin was in Moscow dealing with the rapidly unfolding crisis in Kyrgyzstan. On that day, Putin became the first foreign leader to call Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the new provisional government that took power after violent protests led to former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ouster. Putin’s quick move advanced Russian interests in the strategically important Central Asian state, and he followed it up a few days later by pledging 50 million dollars in loans and aid to the Kyrgyz interim government. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“There are strong economic levers in Putin’s hands,” Volk said, describing loans and energy assistance as two of the prime minister’s key tools.
Putin was also a critical player in Moscow’s other major foreign-policy triumph in April: the surprise agreement with Ukraine that allows Russia to maintain its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea for 25 more years. Kyiv offered the base extension in exchange for a 30-percent discount on its purchases of Russian natural gas. Though the agreement was signed by Medvedev and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, it came only after a flurry of meetings between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Mykola Azarov.
“In the latest Russian foreign-policy success with Ukraine… I think there is little doubt that Putin is the central figure,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Formally, it is Medvedev who attends meetings at the presidential level. But de facto, the most important decisions in foreign policy are at the very least decided jointly, and I think it is possible that Putin’s word carries more importance,” Lipman said.
The maneuverings of Russia’s ruling tandem have been especially convoluted when they have dealt with Moscow’s arch-foe Georgia.
In August 2008, when Georgia attempted to retake control of the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia, it was Putin -- not Medvedev -- who gave the first public reaction, even though Putin was attending the Beijing Summer Olympics at the time. Later, as Russia started to deploy massive force against Georgia, Putin paid a dramatic visit to North Ossetia to meet soldiers and refugees, reinforcing his image as a man of action.
But it was Medvedev, as the commander-in-chief of the Russian military, who gave the formal order for the so-called “operation to force peace” on Georgia, and who signed the ceasefire accord brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that ended the five-day conflict. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Sergei Mikheyev, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, argues that this elaborate two-man performance showed that Putin and Medvedev shape foreign policy jointly.
“Some roles were filled by Medvedev, others by Putin. To say that Putin or Medvedev decided anything by themselves would be naïve,” Mikheyev said.
More recently, Putin opened a new front in Russia’s relations with Georgia by meeting a key leader of the Georgian opposition, former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, in early March. Burjanadze -- a fierce critic of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili -- had a friendly meeting with Putin, who does not disguise his hatred for the pro-Western Saakashvili these days.
“Russia is trying to find people to talk to in Georgia other than Saakashvili, and Burjanadze is one such person,” Mikheyev said.
Alexander Osipovich is a Moscow-based writer who specializes in regional affairs.