As Putin falters, possible next leader of Russia in Brussels this week 

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Russian acting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (back) listens as Russian President Vladimir Putin (front) introduces him to the parliament as a candidate for the post of Prime Minister during a session at the State Duma, lower house of Russian Parliament, in Moscow, Russia, 08 May 2018. [EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV]

Vladimir Putin is now 66, the average age of death for a Russian male. He keeps fit so we can expect he will live longer than his fellow Russian men, whose standard of living and health care has not been at the forefront of his near two decades of rule, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister for Europe, who writes on European policy and politics.

When Putin became president of Russia in 1999, he promised Russians that in fifteen years their incomes would reach the same of Portugal. Today, Russian GDP per capita is half that of Portugal.

For years, the world has focused on Putin as a foreign policy adventurer. But inside Russia, he is seen as a man who looked after the rich but has done nothing for the average Russian.

This Thursday in Brussels, European leaders will get a chance for a  close-up look at Putin’s possible replacement, 53-year-old Dimitri Medvedev. The EU-Asia summit in Brussels will bring the Russian leader together with Asian leaders to meet the EU diplomats.

Medvedev is Putin’s protégé. If he succeeds his boss, he would allow Russia to make a fresh start across a range of policies where Putin is no longer of much use to wider Russian interests and may even be a menace to the ruling clique of ex-security Siloviki, which control Russia.

Most importantly, Medvedev would guarantee Putin’s safety and security if the Kremlin strong-man did decide to move out before he was pushed out, or wait until he is 70, before stepping down or even trying to stay on and on.

Putin has lost the status he once enjoyed when Tony Blair and George W. Bush warmly greeted his arrival to power. Instead, Putin has strutted around the world with his military interventions in Georgia, Syria, Crimea, Ukraine, or organised giant military parades and exercises. He has hosted the Winter Olympics and World Cup like a Roman emperor.

He has orchestrated social media interference and financial support for anti-EU campaigns run by assorted European rightists, including in the UK, or Serbian politicians determined to stop the Western Balkans getting closer to Europe. The FBI investigation into Putin’s attempts to secure the White House for Donald Trump will not fade away. Assassins have been sent to kill those who betray Russian security agencies.

Anders Äslund, the Atlantic Council’s respected observer of the Russian economy and author of a forthcoming book on crony capitalism in Russia, reckons that in the three years 2014-2017 following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and “Anschluss” of Crimea, real disposable incomes fell by 17%, and investment slumped by 12%. He estimates that “the combined cost of Russia’s wars and the Western sanctions is 3-4% of GDP every year.”

Medvedev has been loyal to his superior since first they linked up as a team in Saint Petersburg more than twenty years ago. But he has also been prepared to keep some distance.

When Putin criticised the UN resolution authorising the intervention in Libya to stop Gaddafi from slaughtering his people in 2011, Medvedev openly rebuked him.

Putin said the resolution resembled “medieval calls for crusades”, but Medvedev told Russian news agencies: “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions which essentially lead to a clash of civilisations, such as ‘crusade’ and so on.”

Medvedev criticised Putin’s public remarks about the trial of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, telling officials not to discuss the case in public. Medvedev also warned that Russia risked slipping into a period of political “stagnation” by being dominated by Putin’s United Russia party.

Medvedev has also been closer to the real priorities of ordinary Russians. When Putin moved to raise the pension age for men from 60 to 65 – in a country where the average age of death for males is 66 – Medvedev tried to distance himself and made no public statement on the issue for two weeks.  Raising the pension provoked widespread protests and demonstrations last month with more than 1,000 people arrested.

Putin apologists insist the pension age rise is necessary to help balance the budget. Through all this, Medvedev all but disappeared from public view like a smart Western politician.

Putin has never shown much interest in domestic politics. He enjoys grandstanding and creating foreign policy problems for the West. He craves publicity, like turning up at the wedding of the Austrian foreign minister, who was nominated by the extreme right Freedom Party, and waltzing with her to the cringing embarrassment of the Austrian Chancellor.

After two decades of Putin’s love of the global stage and being in the world limelight, Russians want a domestic policy president who will look after their economic and social priorities.

In recent regional elections, Putin’s ruling United Russia party suffered unprecedented setbacks, securing less than 30% of the votes in formerly safe areas like Vladimir and Khakassia.

Putin won’t be directly challenged by Medvedev. However, if the Siloviki and the ruling circles in Moscow decide, Putin is now provoking more opposition than is healthy for their own interests, then they have a perfect replacement at hand in the shape of Dimitri Medvedev who has demonstrated, that he has political ambitions, distancing himself from unpopular reforms.

This could allow a major reset for Russia’s damaged international relations and allow Russia to edge closer to the rest of Europe.

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