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Russia’s Georgia policy splits the Kremlin

by Andrei Piontkovsky

MOSCOW — Dmitry Medvedev inherited the post of president of the Russian Federation from Vladimir Putin, and while Putin moved down the pecking order to become prime minister, speculation has abounded from the start of Medvedev’s presidency about an eventual split between Russia’s two highest leaders. The first days of the conflict in Georgia crushed this hypothesis.

Indeed, Putin and Medvedev have worked in perfect tandem with respect to Georgia, cooperating and skillfully performing their different roles, with Putin cast in the lead role of the menacing god of a Russian reckoning, and Medvedev in the supporting role of a possible humanitarian peacemaker.

But the Georgia crisis revealed a new strategic force in the Kremlin that opposes both Putin and Medvedev. We still cannot name its players, but we are aware of its interests and impact on events in the same way that astronomers discern a new but invisible planet by recording its impact on known and visible objects in space.

One indication that something new is affecting Russian policy is provided by those loyal Kremlin pundits who are known for their gift of unmistakably guessing their masters’ changing moods. One after another, they have appeared on television and radio to denounce “provokers,” whom they dare not name, for “planning the incursion of Russian troops all the way to Tbilisi and the establishment there of a pro-Russian government.”

Another indirect indication of an ongoing struggle is the uncertain behavior of the Russian military in Georgia, which apparently is the result of contradictory orders from the Kremlin. While the Russian Army seems not to have engaged in any active measures since reaching its current positions, it pointedly remains within a half-hour of Tbilisi.

The line in the sand that U.S. President George W. Bush drew on the night of Aug. 11, warning against Russian air strikes on Tbilisi’s airport and shortly thereafter sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit Tbilisi, provoked a split in the Kremlin. The split divides those who are and are not concerned about the fate of Russian elites’ vast personal holdings in the West.

I call these camps, respectively, Russia’s global and national kleptocrats. Both sides firmly agree that there is nothing that the “weakened and cowardly West” can do to restrain Russia, a nuclear and petroleum superpower, beyond financial retribution against those Russian rulers with vast assets abroad.

But the national kleptocrats seem to believe that they can live without overseas assets, or without educating their children and maintaining residences in the West. Instead, they are content to own properties in elite residential areas around Moscow and in Russia, such as Rublyovka, Valday, and Krasnaya Polyana.

Both Putin and Medvedev (and their television propagandists) currently reflect the views and goals of the global kleptocrats. Neither leader wants to capture Tbilisi. Putin, of course, would have been glad to see Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, his sworn enemy, put in a cage. But other, more down to-earth considerations are more important to him.

That said, Putin is keeping his options open to join the national plutocrats, in case their position dramatically strengthens. If he crosses over to their side, he could even become their leader and triumphantly return to the throne that he formally abandoned only recently.

While no one yet knows the national plutocrats’ names, I believe that they are new, influential players in or associated with the Kremlin, and that they have now become bold enough to challenge both Putin and Medvedev. Russia’s military chiefs, for whom it is psychologically difficult to be ordered by politicians to abruptly end a large-scale and successful military operation, are their natural allies.

I cannot predict who will win this growing confrontation. But even if the global kleptocrats sustain their more “moderate” position on Georgia, theirs could be a Pyrrhic victory. Every day and every hour, by means of their own propaganda, these globally minded kleptocrats, are setting the path to power for the nationalists.

In order to justify their authoritarian rule and camouflage from the Russian public their massive theft of the country’s resources, the global kleptocrats have already convinced ordinary Russians that they are surrounded by ruthless enemies who are trying to dismember and destroy Russia. Now it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to explain why their wives and children are buying palaces in the capitals of countries that are supposedly Russia’s sworn enemies.

By contrast, the national kleptocrats’ position is more consistent. They are not constrained by huge assets in the hated West. It would not be difficult for them to convince ordinary Russians, who have already been primed by today’s xenophobic propaganda, that Tbilisi, Sevastopol, Astana and Tallinn belong to Russia and should be taken by force.

Putin once said that “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union.” The national kleptocrats may soon start calling for its reversal, and they are in an increasingly strong position to do so.

Andrei Piontkovsky is an independent political expert and a researcher at Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. © 2008 Project Syndicate