The Washington Post reports that there may be trouble in the Kremlin’s two-tsar show. The signs: Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the revision of a Vladimir Putin-backed bill expanding the definition of treason; has reportedly prevented the Putin-sought sacking of an official who couldn’t control the protests in Vladivostok; and has met with Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, to express condolences on the murder of Novaya reporter Anastasia Baburova, shot dead along with human rights lawyer Stanivslav Markelov. (At the meeting, Medvedev told Muratov, whose paper has been harshly and often scathingly critical of the Kremlin, that “no one has to like” Novaya Gazeta, but it’s great that it exists and criticizes the government. This is in stark contrast to Putin’s attitude toward the 2006 murder of another Novaya Gazeta reporter, Anna Politkovskaya.)
In another interesting development, “one Russian official … said Putin and Medvedev recently decided that a note-taker should keep minutes of their discussions because ‘misunderstandings’ had arisen following past meetings.” (Putin: “But Dima! We agreed that you were just there for window-dressing and I’d still make all the decisions!” Medvedev: “Actually, Vova, that’s now how I remember it.”)
And now, the latest news: (Russian-language link): Medvedev has appointed several sharp Putin critics to the President’s Council on Human Rights and Civil Society.
Among the new members of the 35-person council: Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist who referred to Putin as a “baby Hitler” in an article in EJ.ru last December; Svetlana Sorokina, a Yeltsin-era TV journalist booted from television news under Putin; anti-corruption activists Elena Panfilova and Kirill Kabanov; and Irina Yasina, formerly the director of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s now-defunct Open Russia Foundation. (See my 2006 interview with Yasina here.) The last appointment is perhaps especially significant, given the relentless Putin-era demonization and persecution of everyone and everything with ties to Khodorkovsky.
Meanwhile, gone from the Council are several Kremlin loyalists and semi-loyalists, including journalist Vitaly Tretyakov and TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov.
It’s unclear at this point what the Council will actually do. (Under Putin, it was more or less a decorative body.) Oreshkin has expressed open skepticism, telling Grani.ru, “I don’t have particularly high hopes that anything can be accomplished,” but also voicing hope for some “dialogue” with the authorities. (The alternative, he quipped, was “to climb on top of a pine tree and sling pine cones at the state.”) “Maybe,” said Oreshkin, “it will be a consultiative body where we’ll talk, but it’s unclear whether anyone will be listening. Maybe we’re going to be a kind of window-dressing: look here, these people are sitting on the council and criticizing the goverment. Time will tell.”
Yasina, meanwhile, says that she has strong hopes the new Council will change something, and that she would not have joined it otherwise.
Be as it may, the gesture is … interesting. To say the least.
A few days ago, Putin got very testy when, at a press conference in Moscow, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso voiced concerns about the Markelov murder and other human rights problems in Russia. Barroso mentioned that he had discussed issues of the rule of law in Russia in his meeting with Medvedev the previous day.
“I have just now learned that Mr. Barroso discussed the construction of a law-based state with President Medvedev,” a visibly irritated Putin said.
“Mr. Barroso discussed this in the Kremlin but is talking about it here, at a news conference, where Mr. Medvedev is absent and cannot say anything about this issue.”
Putin tried to turn the tables, saying the rights of ethnic Russians, migrants and prisoners are violated in some EU countries.
“We believe we must discuss the whole spectrum of problems, both in Russia and in the countries of the European Union,” he said.
Perhaps the real cause of Putin’s irritation was not that Medvedev was given no chance to respond, but that he was mentioned. As Alexander Golts put it in EJ.ru (in Russian): “It’s bad enough that Barroso touched upon a topic that foreigners are not supposed to talk about. He also discussed it with the wrong person.”
Is all this meaningful? Is it real? Is it a well-played good cop/bad cop game, of the kind that many have expected Putin and Medvedev to play?
My banal answer: time will tell. And perhaps sooner rather than later, if Russia’s economic troubles deepen. In Grani.ru, former governor and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov writes (another Russian-language link, alas) that the Putin/Medvedev “tandem” is doomed to end with either Putin ousting Medvedev, making him the scapegoat for the crisis, and taking the country further down the road to dictatorship, or with Medvedev firing Putin, making him the scapegoat, and pursuing liberalization.