Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Putin's New Job

It looks like Vladimir Putin will have a job once his term as President ends: Prime Minister.

Putin has accepted the offer from Dmitri Medvedev, his designated successor, to take the prime minister’s job if, as expected, Medvedev wins the March 2 presidential elections.

So what does all this mean? Conspiracy theorists say that it’s a dance where Medvedev will win the presidency, name Putin as his prime minister, then resign from office, allowing Putin to bypass the term limit laws and once again become president. It’s a great theory, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. There were suggestions earlier in the year to simply amend the constitution to remove the term limits and let Putin stand for a third term. Putin himself squashed the idea.

Assuming then that Medvedev serves as president, many analysts believe he will merely be a figurehead with the real power lying in the hands of Prime Minister Putin. Its definitely possible, but this theory too has flaws. In the Russian parliamentary system, unlike that of Great Britain for example, the president – not the prime minister – holds the real power. In addition, the duties of the Russian Prime Minister are largely domestic. Much of Putin’s appeal within Russia has come from his image as a tough statesman, rebuilding Russia’s image as a world power. As prime minister though, this role would be denied him. It will be President Medvedev, even if he is only a figurehead, going to the UN, the White House, and meetings of the G8 nations, not Putin.

Perhaps then there is another possibility to the Medvedev-Putin partnership.

The Kremlin is a shadowy place where, as they did in the time of the Czars, factions jockey for power behind the scenes. The Moscow Times recently ran a column saying that Medvedev was doomed to failure because he does not have any ties to the Russian federal security services (the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB). Putin and many of his inner circle came up through the KGB and FSB. Former FSB officials make up one of the powerful factions within the Kremlin. Medvedev belongs to the other faction, one generally seen as more liberal and more democratic. The FSB is responsible for Russia’s security, without a connection into this world the Moscow Times argues, Medvedev will be a weak and ineffective leader.

This ties in with an article from Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency about the potential “dual-power arrangement” between Medvedev and Putin. In this scenario Putin takes the prime minister position to leverage his wild popularity with the public and control over the squabbling Kremlin factions to give Medvedev the chance to become a strong leader in his own right. Most importantly (for Russia’s continued stability and growth), Putin’s presence will mean a continuation of his financial policies. The Russian stock market, for example, reacted very positively to the news of his nomination as prime minister.

I think this scenario is the most plausible explanation for the extended drama surrounding the end of Putin’s presidency. If his goal is merely to stay in power, Putin could have easily had the constitution amended on his behalf so he could stand in the upcoming elections. Given his approval ratings consistently cited as being between 70 and 80 percent, it is hard to imagine his not being re-elected. There likely would have been many protests from the West, accusing him of becoming a “president for life”, but its hard to imagine these protests not coming if Medvedev gets himself elected for the sole purpose of stepping down. Providing political cover for his protégé by becoming prime minister then makes a lot more sense.
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