As was the case four years ago, a year out from the presidential election we still have some uncertainty who will emerge victorious. Similarly to four years ago, this presidential election will not be determined at the ballot box, but instead in pre-election jockeying to see who ends up on the ballot. Unlike four years ago, however, we know now the winner will be one of two people: Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin. (What, you weren’t also thinking about the electoral event of 2012, the Russian presidential elections??)

That being said, things are once again getting interesting in Russia. I have previously pointed readers to an excellent Russian politics blog, the Power Vertical. In a series of recent posts (see here, here , and here for example), the blog’s author Brian Whitmore has made the argument that a number of recent developments in Russia should at the very least suggest that the standard wisdom that Putin runs everything and Medvedev is simply a puppet needs to come under some serious scrutiny. This is not to say that Putin is devoid of power in Russia – he isn’t – or that Medvedev is running the show alone – he isn’t – but that there are numerous indicators that Medvedev does not simply intend to go quietly into the shadows with Putin returning to serve as Russia’s president in 2012 (for possibly the next 12 year, with Russian presidential terms having been expanded to 6 years). Indeed, Whitmore suggests that:

What appears to be unfolding here is consistent with my longstanding belief that Plan A is for Medvedev to remain president after 2012 but for Putin to remain the dominant figure in Russian politics—exercising power and influence as the leader of the “deep state” with de facto control over the security services.

Even if Putin is going to be in the background (attempting?) to continue pulling the strings, the fact that Medvedev may remain president is likely to have consequences. Of course, such a claim is dependent on Putin and Medvedev actually having different visions of how Russia ought to evolve over the next six years. Their perceived differences (or lack thereof) has long been a subject of discussion in the media and among pundits, but it is also the subject of a recent report by Mark Urnov of the Moscow Higher School of Economics entitled Modernization in Russia: Clash of Concepts.

The report begins by pointing out differences in statements made by Putin and Medvedev at the end of 2010 in terms of the Khodorkovsky trial and the question of liberal opposition in Russia generally. Urnov then notes:

First, the statements of Putin and Medvedev are not just an expression of their personal positions. Of course, the personal positions of the two first figures in the state are important. But it is much more important that their statements reflect the positions of different groups of the Russian elite and the different and competing groups of interest oriented on these two leaders. Second, the dissimilarities in positions of Putin and Medvedev as well as the dissimilarities in positions of “their” groups are not confined to the attitudes to Khodorkovsky and liberal opposition. These dissimilarities mirror a deep divergence in their approaches to the development strategies of the country. So the above-mentioned statements can be regarded as indicators of different political ideologies.

The differences between these ideologies can be reasonably well demonstrated by comparing the two concepts of modernization – the conservative and liberal. On the basis of the public statements of the tandem’s members, Putin is clearly more inclined to the first one, and Medvedev – to the second one.

The reason why the modernization is chosen as a basis for analysis of the differences in Russian elite’s ideologies is two-fold. First, modernization is a concept that embraces almost all significant aspects of economic, social and political development. Second, today virtually all principal discussions on Russia’s future are taking place in the context of the modernization paradigm.

He defines modernization in the the Russian context as having five key aspects:

1. A high living standard (Russia reaches the living standard close to / comparable with the living standard of the most developed countries )

2. Social justice, law and order (equal opportunities, social protection of vulnerable groups; guarantee of constitutional rights, etc.).

3. Economic leadership (Russia – the world leader in energy and commodity sectors, one of the industrial leaders with a high potential for innovation).

4. Significant improvement of ecological conditions.

5. The security of the country from external threats.

He then goes on to systematically explore how the conservative version of modernization differs from the liberal version of modernization on each of these aspects. He ultimately concludes:

It seems unlikely to foresee now which of two described above concepts of modernization will be the official doctrine of the Russian state after the presidential election of 2012. Of course, the verdict handed down against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev indicates that today in Russian political elite the supporters of “conservative” ideology have proven to be stronger than the representatives of the “liberal” one. However, it is not clear (at least to me) what will be the balance of power a year from now. Too many factors would have to be taken into account – personal relationships within the narrow, opaque and small in number ruling group, conflicting preferences of groups of interests connected with the different members of the ruling group, the orientations of different factions of regional elites, moods in the law enforcement structures, army and special services, public opinion etc. And under the current political regime it is almost impossible to forecast the direction of changes and relative importance of these factors.

The best thing an analyst can do in such a murky political atmosphere is to try to elaborate some scenarios of the future – at least for to help colleagues to be prepared for any possible situations. Let me consider my analysis of Russian modernization ideologies as a humble personal input to the noble work of scenario-forecasting.

For those interested in getting beyond the “horse-race” nature of the Putin vs. Medvedev contest for the 2012 Russian presidential election, it is an interesting read with some useful insights as to what the policy consequences of the 2012 presidential election “results” – and I use that word with explicit recognition of its particular meaning in the Russian context – might turn out to be.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.