Last month, after Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny exposed Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s ill-gotten $1.1 billion fortune, which included a number of luxury properties, all formally owned and managed by his close friends and former classmates through charity organizations, all the pundits in Russia collectively held their breath to see what would happen next. How would Medvedev respond? What would Putin do?
Navalny’s report was accompanied by a slickly-produced video summarizing its findings. By the time 7.5 million Russians had seen the movie, “Dimon” was still keeping quiet. Medvedev’s only reaction was sending best wishes to one of his Instagram followers, who had complained that a “nasty planted story against the Prime Minister” was published on her birthday. Neither the growing viewership of the movie, nor the huge anti-corruption protests that broke out all across Russia on March 26 prompted the PM to pipe up.
Finally, three days after the protests, Vladimir Putin took his pal to a trip to the Arctic, and only after that did Dmitry Medvedev break his silence. He called the investigation “bullshit”—just “some documents” “sponsored by private investors” who “want to bring people to the streets” “seeking a particular political aim”. Medvedev characterized Navalny as some “character with prior convictions”.
As we’ve noted before, Navalny’s investigation is best understood as a direct attack on Medvedev, leaked by a particular group within the siloviki establishment hostile to him staying in power. For now, at least, Medvedev appears to have managed to keep Putin’s confidence. Russia’s President in general loves remote getaways—he has taken trips to Altai, to the taiga, to Valaam, where he has reportedly made important decisions. It appears Medvedev’s political future was decided on this latest Arctic excursion.
Firm evidence of the decision came this week. Two days ago, with Medvedev set do deliver his regular report to the Duma, the only lawmaker who had any intention of asking about Navalny’s investigation—Communist Party member Valery Rashkin—was expressly forbidden from doing so. The political climate had significantly shifted. Right after Navalny’s exposé was published, a number of Russian politicians, including several Duma members, had suggested the allegations should be investigated. Medvedev’s report to the Duma focused on how things are getting better in Russia (which, incidentally, irritated many of the lawmakers) and dodged the corruption allegations completely. The only question that remotely touched on the investigation was a softball: “What is stopping you from defending yourself from Navalny’s attacks?” Ask that kind of question and you will get an appropriate answer: Medvedev said, “I will not comment on the completely false allegations of political troublemakers.”
So for now Dmitry Medvedev gets to keep his job, but that doesn’t mean the struggle in the Kremlin is abating. The reason why this particular group of siloviki wants Medvedev out is that he is the only person Vladimir Putin trusts completely, the only official who has sufficiently proved his loyalty, and the only one who Putin thinks could guarantee him and his close circle personal and financial security. They know that Medvedev is likely to be Putin’s successor, especially should Putin decide to step down or not run again. (According to the Russian Constitution, the Prime Minister is the designated successor in those circumstances.)
Now that Medvedev—a man who loves power and has a taste for vengeance—knows beyond a reasonable doubt that he is being attacked, and probably knows from where the attacks are coming from, he will ruthlessly clean house when he gets his hands on the throne. His enemies know this. Thus they have to destroy him first. Which means this fight will only be getting uglier.