When Russian media yesterday ran a story titled “Couldn’t save him”, I immediately thought to myself “What happened? Who died?” When I clicked on the article, it turned out that President Vladimir Putin had used this phrase in talking about Dmitry Medvedev. Putin was addressing his cabinet, and while noting the absence of his Prime Minister, he quipped: “The flu epidemic in Russia seems to be abating, though it still remains serious. We couldn’t save Dmitry Anatolievich.”
This is not the first time Putin has spoken allegorically about public figures using medical language. And the last time he did, it didn’t go well for the person in question.
Nine years ago, before the world financial crisis, Russia’s steel industry was undergoing a rough period. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Nizhny Novgorod to a meeting of iron and steel industry magnates which he himself had organized. In his speech, he held forth about Mechel, one of the largest companies in the sector at the time, and its owner, Igor Zuzin, who had been hospitalized with cardiological issues several days prior to the meeting.
“There is a respected company out there—Mechel. By the way, its majority owner, Igor Vladimirovich Zuzin, was invited to this meeting too, but he suddenly fell ill. Well, in the first quarter of this year the company was exporting raw materials at prices about half the domestic level. But where are the tax profits for the state? Of course, illness is illness, but I think Igor Vladimirovich ought to get better as quickly as possible. Otherwise, we’re going to have to send him a doctor, and clean up all these problems.”
Mechel’s shares tumbled 38 percent the very same day, and the company lost $5 billion of its market capitalization. Four days later, Putin blamed Zuzin for having his company sell “the raw materials to themselves, to their own offshore subsidiaries—in this case to Switzerland”. Mechel’s shares fell further, declining by a total of 60 percent off its highs.
(Incidentally, all the accusations were made by Vladimir Putin before he had even officially requested that law enforcement check on Mechel’s deals.)
Putin’s words became a euphemism for a physical threat, and the phrase is bandied about ironically by Russians to this day: “Maybe you need to be sent a doctor?”
Igor Zuzin managed to survive, and even kept his company. Still, since then his fortune has declined precipitously. He was worth $8.9 billion in 2011 and only $0.45 billion in 2014. By 2016, Zuzin was not being included on Forbes’ 200-top wealthiest Russians list, the lowest-ranking member of which was worth $0.35 billion.
Today, Medvedev is under attack, too. Unlike with Zuzin, however, the attack is not being led by Vladimir Putin, but by a group of people—likely among the siloviki—who want Medvedev gone. It started at the end of last year, when an official closely associated with the Prime Minister was arrested for extortion. And as we noted last week, the recent investigation into Medvedev’s corruption was not a triumph of the Russian opposition and its leader Alexey Navalny, but rather the next phase of a well-planned assault by Medvedev’s enemies.
Someone is trying to persuade Putin to replace Medvedev, the constitutional successor of Russia’s President. But these people cannot just whisper this to Putin, because Dmitry Anatolievich is a valued ally to Vladimir Vladimirovich. If Putin for some reason decided not to run in 2018, he needs a successor who would guarantee him immunity. Medvedev has proven his loyalty over and again, most notably by keeping the Presidential chair warm for his sparring partner from 2008 to 2011, and then by stepping aside to once again become Prime Minster in 2012, without as much as a peep in protest.
Why would Putin not run in 2018? Russia is in very bad financial shape, for one. The country needs to restart cooperating with the West, with a thaw in financial relations the top priority. And despite all the hopes placed on the Presidency of Donald Trump, Russia cannot risk holding out for mercy from the White House—it’s not a solid plan at all. Furthermore, Western political elites are not in any rush to talk to Putin, and that’s not likely to change if Rutte is re-elected Prime Minister in the Netherlands and Macron is made President of France.
Medvedev has long looked like an ideal replacement to pull off Moscow’s pivot—a liberal reformer to many in the West, but a loyal apparatchik in reality (and, most importantly, in Putin’s eyes). A Medvedev visibly awash in corruption, however, is no longer the ideal interlocutor for Westerners looking for a partner they can trust. The recent attacks on the Prime Minister might have achieved their goal of discrediting him as a suitable replacement, and Putin little joke may prove to be a more sinister slip of the tongue: “We couldn’t save him,” indeed.