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Dmitry Gets No Respect

NTV chief Vladimir Kulistikov took a well-aimed pot shot at Dmitry Medvedev during a live televised meeting between the president and the general directors of the country’s top three television stations on Dec. 24. Kulistikov said that while listening to Medvedev’s state-of-the-nation address in November, he had been struck by how many senior officials in the audience displayed an “amazing, complete indifference” to what Medvedev was saying. During the speech, Kulistikov said, some whispered among themselves, while others played with their cell phones.

Having established that Medvedev enjoys little respect among bureaucrats, Kulistikov asked, “Between you and reality are an army of bureaucrats. What are you going to do so that your decisions are implemented in the regions and not turned into a parody of themselves?”

What prompted the snide remark is unclear, but the question proved prescient. Last week, Medvedev called governors and ministers to a meeting and ordered them to show more respect. He complained that many of his presidential orders — 38 percent in total last year — go unfulfilled. He grumbled about getting the runaround, of being inundated with legendary otpiski, or written excuses, which Russian bureaucrats have craftily used for centuries to buy time or explain away why this or that order was not fulfilled on time — or not fulfilled at all.

The meeting marked the first of its kind to be shown on television. Medvedev clearly had intended to use the gathering — a video conference — to publicly chew out his subordinates, hoping to show that he is a tough boss a la his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But it backfired miserably.

“Discipline is lame,” Medvedev complained. “It is necessary to value presidential orders. They have to be rigorously fulfilled. Whoever doesn’t fulfill them can take a hike.”

The biggest problem is that Medvedev plays an unconvincing tough guy. And the more Medvedev tries to act tough, the weaker he looks.

Medvedev’s height of 162.5 centimeters has little to do with it because Putin is not that much taller. More important, Medvedev is perceived as too much of a “smart kid” and wonk — the “Blogger in Chief,” as his opponents like to call him.

When Putin dresses down oligarchs and Olympic bureaucrats or threatens to send a “doctor” to Mechel owner Igor Zyuzin “to clean him out,” it is very convincing. Just look at the stiff, serious and sometimes petrified faces of others present when Putin performs one of his tongue-lashings. No one would even think of sending a text message during one of Putin’s meetings.

The arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 certainly helped Putin establish his image as a tough boss, showing everyone he can put the money where his mouth is. Putin shows once again what has always been said about Russia: You have to be tough to be an effective manager or leader in the country; otherwise, subordinates will walk all over you. The old Russian saying “If you are feared, you are respected” certainly applies to both Medvedev and Putin.

Several weeks ago, when Medvedev caught two Kremlin aides chit-chatting during a government meeting with business leaders, he said, “Are you chatting again? You do this at every meeting.”

Even one participant during last week’s video conference, Irkutsk Governor Dmitry Mezentsev, was shown on camera signing papers brought to him by his assistant during the meeting. It is a safe bet that Mezentsev was among the guys sending text messages during Medvedev’s state-of-the-nation address.

Medvedev struggled to get respect even during his pre-presidency days as first deputy prime minister and Gazprom chairman. “Medvedev has such a weak personality that he would be raped by lobbyists right on his table on the second day of his presidency, and Putin knows this,” Mikhail Delyagin, a former government economic adviser, told The Moscow Times as speculation swirled that Putin in fall 2007 might support Medvedev as his preferred successor.

In the end, you can’t help but sympathize with Medvedev. He is conscientious, hardworking and appears to be honest. He is trying hard to gain respect and push through his reform and modernization programs against all odds, including some of Putin’s eminences grises who are determined to undermine Medvedev’s authority at every step. After all, Putin’s inner circle has a direct, financial interest in making sure that Putin returns to the presidency in 2012. The stakes are too high, and they don’t want to take any risks.

The late American comedian Rodney Dangerfield had a great one-liner: “I get no respect. The way my luck is running, if I was a politician I would be honest.” Sounds like Rodney and Dmitry might have something in common.

Michael Bohm is opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.

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