At Large

To Be or Not to Be

Putin puts up with Medvedev -- for how long?

By 4.23.10

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"Vladimir Putin gave up the presidency of Russia because he had to -- not because he wanted to." It's hard to argue with that statement from one of the numerous Russian analysts commenting on Putin's departure from the presidency. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the former president is totally unsatisfied with his current status as prime minister.

No analyst other than the most partisan sees Putin as subordinate to President Dmitry Medvedev, the fellow Leningrader/St. Petersburger whom he lifted into the chief of state chair directly from his previous posts as his trusted #2. At the same time there has been a growing competition between the staff aides to both men, and, more importantly, increasing political infighting.

Younger by 13 years and what is in effect an entire political generation than his boss, Medvedev had no desire to be Putin's replacement. That's what made him perfect for the job -- initially. The problem is that he is showing no sign now of not liking the job. His first term as president is up in the spring of 2012 and already the Kremlinologists are chirping away in their nests.

The first question that arises is whether Putin wants his old position back. Has he grown weary of playing the eminence grise and wants to get back formally into the role of head of state with the type of overt power he used to have before 2008? The second question is just as important, though perhaps more complicated. Is Dmitry Medvedev so servile that he simply would step aside for his acknowledged "godfather" -- or would his increasingly ambitious political camp be successful in urging their boss to dig in his heels for another term?

Polls of the Russian public indicate a large minority percentage firmly believe the modest mannered president is nothing more than a puppet of the far more aggressive sambo champion, V.V. Putin. Such a belief is buttressed by the argument that the former president -- now prime minister -- has his siloviki of the intelligence/security services and key military personalities as his political praetorian guard.

There are signs, however, that in the past two years a coterie has developed in and around the president's office who see their own future tied to a second term for "Dimi," as his mentor was wont to call his young chief of staff in the early days. Relations between the two men and their respective offices today are more formal and what one Kremlin insider referred to as "…now a proper political alliance."

However accurate this characterization -- most observers portray a more uneven relationship -- there is no doubt that Medvedev has recently sought to sketch a separate political profile for himself. He projects an image of instinctive moderation that suits an academic bent toward what has been referred to as a "calculated conservatism." That image may be perfect in a loyal deputy, but not a leader -- certainly not a Russian leader. At least that's what Putin's staffers recently have been at pains to point out. A surprising amount of this bickering gets into the Russian media.

Putin remains an imposing figure who both Russians and foreigners alike believe intends to exercise political power in one role or another for quite a while. The alternative of leaving government life to assume the CEO role in a major conglomerate, as some have suggested, just does not seem to fit the personality or interests of Vlad Putin. He clearly doesn't need the money. No one questions that Putin has accumulated considerable wealth in the past twenty years. Medvedev, with a business law background, actually might be a better candidate for a high international financial position.

It appears that the Russian people feel secure in the tandem rule of the young, mild-mannered, academic Medvedev, steeled by the presence of the former Soviet KGB apparatchik turned formidable politician and internationally respected -- and powerful- world leader. It's a solid one-two punch that works well on offense or defense of Russian interests.

Putin has reinvented Russia's authoritarian political culture no matter what happens in 2012.What he and Medvedev will have to evolve is an answer to their country's economic strait jacket of dependence on its energy exports, reliance on foreign investment capital and general need for internal socio-economic reforms.

Medvedev has shown an increasing ease as president and may want to continue in that position. Putin is strictly a power player who cares less about the title (head of state vs. head of government) than he does about the actual extent of his authority. A compromise could be reached through a revised parliamentary system with constitutional amendments that codify total operational control in the hands of the prime minister and adjusts the presidency to a traditional, if limited, head of state role.

Such an action would take some serious political negotiation within the Russian legislature as well as between the two principals. In the last analysis, however, whatever will be done is dependent upon Vladimir Putin far more than Dmitry Medvedev.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.