From the August 18, 2008 Transitions Online (Czech Republic)
August 18, 2008
by Andrei A. Piontkovsky
WASHINGTON | Dmitry Medvedev inherited the post of president of the Russian Federation from Vladimir Putin, and while Putin moved down the pecking order and became prime minister, there has been a great deal of speculation about an eventual split between Russia's two highest leaders.
The first days of the conflict in Georgia have challenged this hypothesis. Putin and Medvedev worked in perfect tandem, cooperating and skillfully performing their different roles. As it now seems, Putin played the leading role of menacing god of Russian reckoning between 8 and 11 August, while Medvedev took the part of could-be humanitarian peacemaker from 12 August and beyond.
But the Georgian crisis has made us aware of a new strategic force in the Kremlin. We still cannot name those associated with the new force that opposes both the president and prime minister. But we can become aware of the force’s interests and effects by their behavior, just as astronomers can discern a new but invisible planet by vacillations in the trajectories of the visible and known ones.
An indication that something new is affecting Russian policy is provided by the most famous and loyal Kremlin pundits who are known for their gift of unmistakably guessing the changing moods of their masters. One after another has appeared on television and radio and denounced those "provokers planning the incursion of Russian troops all the way to Tbilisi and establishment there of a pro-Russian government." Although these personalities were quite eloquent about criticizing the "provokers," none dared to name them.
Another indirect indication of an ongoing struggle is the uncertain behavior of the Russian military in Georgia, apparently resulting from contradictory orders coming from Moscow. On the one hand the Russian army seems not to have engaged in any active measures since reaching its present positions, but at the same time they pointedly remain within a short march of Tbilisi.
RUSSIA’S TWO CAMPS
The line in the sand that U.S. President George W. Bush drew on the night of 11 August, warning against Russian air strikes on the Tbilisi airport and shortly thereafter sending his secretary of state to visit Tbilisi, provoked a split among the Kremlin rulers. The divide is between those who are concerned about the fate of the Russian elites’ vast personal holdings in the West (hundreds of billions of dollars) and those who couldn't care less.
I would call these players respectively globalist kleptocrats and nationalist kleptocrats. Each firmly believes that there is nothing that the "weakened and cowardly West" is able to do that could restrain Russia, a nuclear and petroleum superpower, beyond personal financial retributions against those Russians with vast assets abroad.
However, the nationalist kleptocrats seem to believe that they can live without holding their assets, educating their children and maintaining residences in the West. Instead, they are content to own properties in elite residential areas around Moscow and in such favored spots around Russia as Rublyovka, Valday, and Krasnaya Poliana.
Both Putin and Medvedev (and their television propagandists) currently reflect the views and goals of the globalist kleptocrats. Neither wants to capture Tbilisi. Putin, of course, would have been glad to see his sworn personal enemy, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in a cage. But other, more down-to-earth considerations are more important for him.
However, Putin is keeping his option open to join the nationalist kleptocrats, in case their position dramatically strengthens. If he were to cross over to their side, Putin could even become their head and triumphantly return to the throne that he formally abandoned on 7 May.
Who are the leaders of the nationalist kleptocrats? While no one yet knows their names, I believe that they are new, influential players in or associated with the Kremlin. And they now seem to have become bold enough to challenge both Putin and Medvedev. Russia's military chiefs, for whom it is psychologically difficult to abruptly end large-scale and logically incomplete operations under orders from the politicians, also could become natural allies of the nationalist kleptocrats.
I cannot predict who will win this growing confrontation. However, even if the globalist kleptocrats sustain their more "moderate" position on Georgia, it could become their Pyrrhic victory. Every day and every hour, by means of their own propaganda, the globalists are laying down the path to power for the nationalist kleptocrats.
In order to justify their authoritarian rule and to camouflage their massive thefts from the Russian people, the globalists have already convinced the people that they are surrounded by ruthless enemies that are trying to dismember and destroy Russia. And it is now becoming increasingly difficult for them to explain why their wives and children are buying palaces in the capitals of countries called sworn enemies of Russia.
The position of the rival nationalist kleptocrats is more consistent. They are not constrained by huge assets in the hated West. It would not be difficult for them to convince the Russian people, who have already been warmed up by the xenophobic propaganda of the globalist kleptocrats, that Tbilisi, Sevastopol, Astana, and Tallinn belong to Russia and should be taken by force.
"The greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union," Putin said in a nationally televised speech in 2005. The distinct trend in the Kremlin today suggests that the kleptocratic leaders of Russia are increasingly inclined to reverse Putin's self-described catastrophe.
Andrei Piontkovsky is a visiting fellow with Hudson Institute.
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