For several days now, President-elect Dmitri Medvedev has been enjoying coffee and rolls from the Kremlin bakehouse at the taxpayer’s expense. As Frankfurter Rundschau reports (translated into Russian at Inopressa.ru), this is because President Vladimir Putin anticipated the inauguration and issued a decree stating that the Kremlin administration will cover the financial, material, and other needs of the president-elect and his wife.
In other areas as well, the new division of governing powers in Russia between the outgoing and incoming presidents has been equally smooth – outwardly, at least.
At the United Russia party’s congress in Moscow on April 14-15, Putin was elected as party chairman. Putin and Medvedev were both invited to join the party, but both of them declined. Moreover, as Lenta.ru reports, Putin confirmed that he is prepared to become prime minister after Medvedev’s inauguration.
Most experts are saying that Putin’s decision to head United Russia indicates that he wants to stay on as the leading figure in Russian politics, and is an extra safeguard against the possibility of Medvedev making any unexpected appointment or dismissal decisions. According to the Constitution, after all, it only takes one presidential decree to dismiss a prime minister.
Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, told the Vremya Novostei newspaper: “If Medvedev does anything too strange, or if his group tries to work against the interests of the future prime minister’s group, Putin could always get the president impeached by using the parliament that he will control via United Russia.”
Dmitri Orlov, general director of the Political and Economic Communications Agency, said in an interview with the Izvestia newspaper that the construct in which Putin as prime minister is supported by United Russia’s parliamentary majority, while also being the party’s leader, “is in keeping with our traditions, and a normal situation for countries with established democratic systems of government.” Orlov also pointed out that “Dmitri Medvedev called United Russia a party of like-minded people and noted that his direct participation in its activities would be premature as yet – but only as yet. Take note of that ‘as yet’ – few observers have picked up on it.”
Alexander Rahr, program director for Russia and Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times (translated into Russian at Inopressa.ru) that Medvedev’s decision may indicate that he wants to distance himself from Putin. Rahr said: “If he had joined the party, he would have received a new boss. That means the head of the party: Putin.”
Most media reports have emphasized that it’s practically unprecedented, anywhere in the world, to have a party leader who is not a member of the party. Moskovskii Komsomolets says: “A dead man was officially proclaimed as party leader and national leader: in North Korea, after the death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung. A senior office was given to an animal: the story of the horse that became a Roman Consul is familiar to all of us from our school-days. But experts have been racking their brains without success to come up with any cases where the official leader of the ruling party in a developed nation was not a member of that party.”
Novaya Gazeta maintains that Prime Minister Putin’s political resources will be equal to, or even significantly greater than, the constitutional powers (resources) of President Medvedev: “Right before our eyes, the real center of power is shifting from the Kremlin to Government House.”
Moskovskii Komsomolets says that Putin’s consent to become United Russia’s leader as well as prime minister means that our country will have two hierarchies of governance rather than one: “The existing presidential hierarchy will be handed over to Medvedev along with Putin’s office space in the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Putin himself will set about establishing a new hierarchy focused on the prime minister and the party.”
Vremya Novostei observer Semyon Novoprudsky says: “In effect, Russia is turning into a quasi-parliamentary republic where the parliamentary majority can be used as an instrument for putting pressure on the head of state.”
Novaya Gazeta emphasizes that after May 8, Putin will be in charge (de facto or de jure) of the executive and legislative branches of government, including the regional legislatures. Moreover, people loyal to Putin have been appointed to head the security and law enforcement agencies and state corporations; giant media assets have been handed over to Putin’s friends. Novaya Gazeta says: “Putin is not leaving empty-handed, by any means: his hefty ‘departure package’ contains many valuable political and business assets.”
Vedomosti adds that by the time Putin becomes prime minister, that office will obviously be far more significant than it has been during his time as president. It was reported last week that two instruments of control over the regions are being transferred from the Kremlin to the Cabinet: regional leaders will now have to make regular performance reports to the Regional Development Ministry, and this ministry also seems likely to be placed in charge of the presidential envoys in federal districts.
Smart Money points out that the presidential envoys will be working on the regional merger and expansion project that may be completed while Putin is prime minister. According to Regional Development Minister Dmitri Kozak, Russia will eventually have ten macroregions (a Kremlin source told Smart Money that there will be twelve). Officials say that after the inauguration the number of envoys will be increased from seven to ten or so; this tends to support what Kozak said about regional merger plans. Most likely, whichever envoys succeed in consolidating their federal districts will then become super-goverors. Smart Money concludes that since the regional elites will be “married” under the supervision of the prime minister rather than the president, there is no need to worry about a dual power situation developing in Russia: Putin alone will remain in charge.
Yuri Korgunyuk, chief editor of the Partinform newsletter, says in an article for Gazeta.ru: “Putin’s aspiration to accumulate as many offices as possible, including the leadership of United Russia, indicates that he is getting nervous and seeking to hang on to real power any way he can, even as it slips away to his successor.” According to Korgunyuk, this shows that “in choosing the successor, Putin failed to calculate all the potential consequences – and now he’s simply nervous.”
The Wall Street Journal (Inopressa.ru) quotes tycoon Boris Berezovsky as saying “‘it’s clear that Putin already is showing his lack of trust’ by holding onto the prime minister’s job and now taking the post of party leader.” Berezovsky added that Putin and his inner circle “are very worried about the inauguration of Medvedev, because then he assumes all the very large powers of the president. Now they are doing all they can to limit those.”
“Vladimir Putin needs an ‘order of sword-bearers’ – a second hierarchy of governance, which may go on to absorb, or at least overshadow, the presidential hierarchy,” says Alexander Golts, deputy editor of Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal. “At the personal level, Vladimir Putin may be sickened by memories of the CPSU’s decline into senility – but objective developments are prompting him to establish a totalitarian party. What’s more, it won’t take him nearly as long to revive this hierarchy as it took Stalin to create it in the first place. The historical experience is still there. And ‘sword-bearers’ will be found to replace those participating in the current congress of winners.”
RIA Novosti observer Svetlana Babayeva notes that aside from the theory that Medvedev will step down early so that Putin can reclaim the presidency, another theory is also being discussed: “Putin himself may calmly resign after four years, or even three – and now he is simply seeking to transfer power to his replacement smoothly, with no excesses on the part of the elite.”
Gazeta.ru observer Natalia Gevorkian says that leading a party without actually joining it “represents honorable retirement for Putin – ironic, in a sense, but also calm and secure, with few responsibilities. This is the sinecure where he will make himself comfortable after holding the office of prime minister for a while.” Gevorkian maintains that the illusion of Putin’s presence is required to pacify the public, and for those who like to live under the illusion that he will return, and for those of his close associates who fear the prospect of his departure.
Gevorkian says: “United Russia will remain the Kremlin’s tame party and a completely loyal parliamentary majority for the president who takes office on May 7. The developing configuration shows no evidence whatsoever of Putin growing stronger and Medvedev growing weaker, whether de jure or de facto.”
According to Gevorkian, Putin will remain prime minister just as long as it takes to transform Medvedev into Russia’s real leader; the illusion of two centers of power, generated by the unusual form of Putin’s move into United Russia, is all part of the tactics for a painless transfer of power from the incumbent to the president-elect.