Finally the mystery is over — well, maybe nearly. The mystery, of course, has been the future of Vladimir Putin after his term as president of Russia ends next spring. Prevented by the Russian constitution from an additional four years, Putin announced last October that he would lead the candidate list of the United Russia party in the recent elections for the lower house of the Russian parliament.
United Russia won 64% of the parliamentary electoral vote, and the president of Russia quickly celebrated by throwing his support behind his 42-year-old protege from St. Petersburg, Dimitry Medvedev, to succeed him. In turn “Dima,” as his patron calls him, announced that he would move to name Putin the next prime minister — a post that Putin had said in October would be “entirely realistic.”
As prime minister Putin would be in a position to continue to oversee all important government programs while ceding to the new “boy king” the formal role of head of state. Putin has made no secret of the fact that he detests the nearly daily task of greeting and playing host to visiting potentates. Medvedev would take over that function as well as the numerous other protocol duties domestically and internationally associated with the presidency. The close working relationship that has existed between the two men will continue unchanged.
Reality dictates that Putin will remain the man in Russia counted on for the final word on contentious issues. At the same time Medvedev would be conveniently available if excuses for inaction or disagreement over policy were needed. At least that’s the initial take of some of Moscow’s ever-quotable Kremlinologists. In any case, no one in Russia or elsewhere will mistake who is running the show.
A mystery remains, however, how all this will work out in practice. The creation of what is in effect a ruling party in the form of United Russia is now explained by Kremlin press contacts as simply a replication of the sort of democratic political circumstance that existed for many years in Japan, Mexico, Sweden and even during the twenty-year reign of the Democratic Party of FDR and Truman in the United States.
There is a serious legal problem nonetheless in the division of responsibility between the prime minister’s office and the presidency. The Russian constitution quite clearly places the final executive power in the hands of the president. The idea that Putin would want to have the constitution amended in order to enhance his prime ministerial powers seems short sighted if he wished to return to the presidency.
While no one suggests the possibility of Medvedev reaching for his full legal powers, that potential certainly cannot be ignored. It is perhaps the fact that “Dima” among the several candidates to take over the presidential chair was the one most subservient to Putin personally — and one with no security or military tie — thus was the best fit as surrogate for the “real” president.
At first glance the security services may appear to have been slighted by not having one of their own chosen to replace their inspirational leader, V.V. Putin. But the reality may be quite otherwise. There actually are several factions within the siloviki pushing and pulling at any given time. Some sector was bound to be upset that a rival security element had won the presidency. With the young, bookish chairman of Gazprom, First Deputy PM Dimitry Medvedev, chosen, the potential of serious internal political conflict among the siloviki would be defused. At the same time Vladimir Putin, himself, would have shown his own master political touch.
Disregarding the restriction of civil rights and freedom of the press, even though they would never admit it, the West applauds the continuation of Putin’s leadership of Russia. As much as the Russian people enjoy the prospect of the uninterrupted nature of a strong nachalnik, the West has a difficult time, itself, in dealing with and understanding Russia without a strong hand in the Kremlin. In Putin’s case it definitely is a matter of “the devil you know…”
According to most polls Putin has had the consistent support of a majority of the electorate in Russia and an approval rating in the seventy percentile. This has added to Putin’s status among other world leaders. As long as Putin manages to remain in his position of authority — no matter his title — with the continued astronomical approval of the Russian citizenry, he will only grow as an international power broker. And this is a role Russia has been seeking for itself since the days of the czars.
As it stands now, a combination of the young Dimitry Medvedev and the still youthful Vladimir Putin, plus all that oil and gas clout, makes Russia an increasingly formidable factor in world affairs. The next Washington administration will certainly have its hands full. And that’s no mystery.