Last week, we noted the gallows humor employed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev missing a cabinet meeting. “The flu epidemic in Russia seems to be abating, though it still remains serious,” Putin snarked. “We couldn’t save Dmitry Anatolievich.”
“Well, I wasn’t sick at all,” Medvedev said when asked about his absence yesterday. Indeed, the day after Putin’s remark, Medvedev met with Armenia’s President Serge Sargsyan. Neither Medvedev’s spokesman, nor Putin’s, would comment when reached by the press.
The unexplained absence occurred shortly after Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition figure most famous in the West for his slickly-produced exposés of corrupt Russian officials, published the results of a massive investigation of Medvedev several weeks back. Normally, Putin doesn’t always react to such investigations—at least not right away. Former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin, also one of Navalny’s targets, held on to his job for a year after the exposé landed. On the other hand, Attorney General Yury Chaika is still in place, despite revelations of his sons’ businesses’ mob ties.
But Medvedev is a little different. Many see him as a natural successor to Putin. For one, he is next in line according to Russia’s Constitution if the President resigns early or can for some reason no longer serve. For another, he is thought to be loyal to Putin. After all, he stepped aside without protest in 2012, when Putin re-took the Presidency after Medvedev’s brief interregnum made it constitutionally possible for him to do so.
And that loyalty is a valuable commodity. Putin needs someone to guarantee his personal and financial security, just as Putin himself did for “the Family”, Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle, when Yeltsin resigned in 1999. As a case in point, consider billionaire Oleg Deripaska, whose name has popped up in the news recently. Deripaska is part of the Family—he is married to the daughter of Yeltsin’s daughter’s husband Valentin Umashev—and his massive aluminum conglomerate was bailed out by the Russian government several times over, staving off personal bankruptcy for the lucky oligarch. If Putin decides to step down, he and his closest associates need the same kinds of guarantees. Among those that would qualify, one should count his son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and his extended family, the Rotenbergs, the Kovalchuks, and a number of the siloviki.
Is Medvedev finished? It’s impossible to know for sure how to read these latest tea leaves, but the optics are not great for the Prime Minister. As we noted last week, Medvedev clearly has enemies among the siloviki, some of whom are using Navalny’s investigations to discredit him, particularly as a plausible liberal interlocutor for the West. And Navalny’s report appears to have caught fire in Russia itself. A set of protests against Medvedev are being planned by Navalny and his followers in 100 cities across Russia, including in Moscow. Stay tuned.