Medvedev Is Neither Tsar Nor Saint

Russians have a serious problem on their hands. They don't know which of the two tsars is the real one.

Russia has been governed by collective leadership more than once, starting when Tsar Peter (before he became "the Great") shared the throne with his half-brother, Ivan V. In addition, there were attempts at collective leadership after Josef Stalin's death and after Nikita Khrushchev's ouster. I remember when I started school back in 1965, some first graders received textbooks with Khrushchev's portrait in them, and others got the same books without any portrait. We were confused by all of this. Even though we were school children, we knew that Khrushchev was no longer the main leader, but we couldn't understand why the portrait of somebody new did not replace him in the books.

Collective leadership has always ended with one man emerging triumphant and wielding undivided authority. But our current leaders seem determined to keep us guessing by not offering any good clues. Since Vladimir Putin took the position of prime minister, he has been handling rather mundane domestic issues, crunching numbers and appointing various officials of only secondary importance. These tasks are hardly fit for a tsar.

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For his part, Dmitry Medvedev's behavior has not been very presidential either. He talks about sports and pop music and discusses football with high school students on their graduation night. Although this gives a human face to the presidential post, the people expect something more heavy-handed from a tsar, such as banishing a corrupt oligarch to Siberia or wasting terrorists in the outhouse.

But this is a serious matter because the presidency is losing credibility among the people. Until the presidential election in March, it was clear in everybody's mind that we have Putin at the helm and that he has matters under control. Whether he was doing a good job or a bad one was not a subject for debate. He had the country's highest position, and nobody had the right to ask how the national leader did his job -- or whether he did it at all. Putin was a living symbol, an embodiment of the national idea and the Russian spirit. He was practically a saint.

Now Putin is just a bureaucrat -- albeit a very high-ranking one. He is still popular, but the real issue concerns the mysticism surrounding the tsar. The mystical aura around Putin has vanished, and Medvedev's has not been able to fill his shoes.

The various clans among the elite have yet to jockey for position in the new government as they would normally do. This is actually the reason for the current ambiguity. Everybody is trying to watch his step, to avoid any sudden movements and to keep from making enemies. The shared goal is to avoid upsetting the fragile balance of power that has been struck and to demonstrate loyalty to both leaders.

Unfortunately, this perceived balance has people worried. An open struggle for power would be nothing new, but this collective leadership actually seems to work and elicits feelings of confusion that border on panic.

Eventually, however, the scales will tilt and that fragile balance will be broken. Once the first serious dispute among the clans breaks out, the factions will go running to their respective patrons for support. Of course, Putin and Medvedev are doing their utmost to ensure that every clan is satisfied, but they can't realistically expect to prevent all disagreements among the ruling elite.

For the time being, there is equilibrium and tranquility among the elite, but no one should be overly complacent. The moment there is some kind of significant event that forces the clans to choose sides, we will see very clearly just how shaky that balance really was.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.