It's a puzzle that has befuddled generations of Russian rulers. How do you open up the political system just enough to allow an anxious society to blow off steam, but not enough to threaten the elite's hold on power.
Now it's President Dmitry Medvedev's turn to take a crack at solving the riddle. He's given a fireside chat promising greater transparency. He's pledged to bring fresh faces into the government. He's stalled a controversial bill expanding the definition of espionage. And he's met with the editor of the opposition "Novaya gazeta."
In comments to "Russia Profile," Nikolai Sluchevsky, the president of the Stolypin Memorial Center for Government Development and Reform (and the great-grandson of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian prime minister from 1906 to 1911), suggested that Medvedev's recent overtures are tactical maneuvers based on the needs of the moment:
Medvedev’s moves toward openness are less about a rivalry between him and prime minister [Vladimir] Putin and more about what the situation of the moment demands, and his training in response to it. While this may be a nuanced distinction, it is, nevertheless, a vital one. Certainly there are tensions with the prime minister, but it is not an issue of power politics between them. At least not at the moment.
I think Sluchevsky is on to something. The way the debate has been framed since Medvedev began raising his profile -- some say it points to a split with Putin, others suggest the two are engaged in an elaborate game of "good cop-bad cop" -- misses the essence of how Russia is ruled.
In October 2007, I wrote the following and still believe it holds true today:
Russia is run by a collective leadership -- the Kremlin Corporation's board of directors, so to speak. Putin is the front man and public face for an elite group of seasoned bureaucrats, most of whom are veterans of the KGB and hail from the president's native St. Petersburg. Together, they run Russia and control the crown jewels of the country's economy. All key political decisions in Russia...are the result of deliberation and consensus among members of a tight-knit inner sanctum many analysts have dubbed 'the collective Putin.'
This inner sanctum, however, has always been fraught with bitter rivalries. Putin's role has always been to manage the "personal, political, and commercial conflicts among its members, and preventing any one faction in the ruling elite from becoming too powerful."
One of the more intense rivalries in Putin's inner circle has been between Medvedev and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the informal leader of the so-called "siloviki" clan of security-service veterans that Putin brought to Moscow when he became president.
Here is how Dmitry Travin of the Center for Modernization Studies at the European University of St. Petersburg described Sechin in a recent interview:
Sechin has conflicts with practically everybody. He is a person who aspires to expand his power until it is unlimited. He particulaly seeks to control Russia's financial flows. He wants to use his ties with Puitn to the maximum effect.
Sechin opposed Putin's decision to pass the presidency over to Medvedev. He instead argued that Putin should change the constitution and remain in power indefinitely. He is also opposed to any thaw, even a temporary and tactical one. He is trying to have Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a Medvedev ally, removed.
In comments reported by "Moskovsky komsomolets," political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin explains why the "collective Putin" (which most analysts say also includes National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, military procurement chief Viktor Cherkesov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Ivanov) has been behaving so erratically lately:
There are polemics inside this group, but it is unanimous in one way -- that is the desire to remain in the upper echelons of society. And everyone there understands the means to achieve this goal differently. Some insist that competition must continue to be restricted and the electoral system to be emasculated; while others propose to fill the empty electoral niches with the managed opposition. Since neither one of these groups can ever gain a formal victory, the documents and programs always turn out to be compromises and indecisive.
What many have seen as an emerging conflict between Medvedev and Putin is actually a conflict within the "collective Putin" pitting Medvedev against Sechin and the "siloviki."
What all this seems to suggest is that Putin, as the ultimate arbiter, has not yet decided whether he wants a tactical thaw or not. And I find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that Putin -- or Medvedev for that matter -- wants any thaw to be anything but tactical and temporary.