The key policy speech in Russia since Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration as president on May 7 and his appointment of Vladimir Putin as his prime minister the following day was made not by the new head of state but by Putin. In a speech to the State Duma on May 8 before his confirmation as the new head of government, Putin outlined a number of goals, mainly in the economy and the social sphere. He said that the government’s total taxation of 75 to 80 percent of the oil industry’s profits was discouraging the exploration of new fields and that he would announce a cut in oil-exploration taxes by August. He also said he would work to bring inflation back to single digits “in the next few years” and pledged financial market reforms to ensure that Russia would become one of the world’s major financial centers with a “large class of investors.” He said that the country’s laws should be updated to create a level playing field in financial operations and introduce a modern settlement system on stock markets. In addition, Putin called for support of industries that produced high-tech goods and services, increases in pensions and salaries for the armed forces, elimination of red tape, leveling the playing field for private and state companies, developing agriculture amid rising world food prices and improving education, health care and housing conditions (Moscow Times, May 12).
President Dmitry Medvedev appeared at the State Duma on May 8 to introduce Putin in a short speech, saying their “tandem” would only grow stronger with time, and many observers believe, as the Moscow Times wrote, that the “carefully choreographed transfer of power” of the presidency from Putin to Medvedev and Putin’s immediate reemergence as prime minister “will likely see Putin remain as influential as the president, if not more, for years to come” (Moscow Times, May 12).
Some even believe that Medvedev is willingly acting as a kind of placeholder for Putin. As Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites, recently told the Washington Post: “I’m absolutely sure that Putin is coming back [as president]. Whether that happens in two or four years, I don’t know. But he will be coming back for 14 years, two new seven-year terms.” Kryshtanovskaya said she thought that Medvedev was “a willing participant in all of this,” but added: “Of course, there is a very small chance that Medvedev might betray him and become a real president, and some of Putin’s moves recently are to protect himself from that” (Washington Post, May 5).
On the other side of the analytical ledger are observers like the head of the National Strategy Institute Stanislav Belkovsky, who continues to insist that Russia has an inherently monarchical political system that cannot be ruled by a diarchy and thus that Medvedev will be the country’s unchallenged leader. Belkovsky now argues that Medvedev’s main task is to overcome the “estrangement” between the Russian elite and Western elites that took place during Putin’s rule. According to Belkovsky, Medvedev will try to convince the West that he is a liberal and that a “thaw” is taking place, even though, in Belkovsky’s view, any real liberalization of Russia’s political system would undermine the monopoly of power enjoyed by its ruling elite. This would be, in Belkovsky’s words, “fatal for the regime” and thus will not take place.
Indeed, Belkovsky recently said that having Putin in office as prime minister suited Medvedev, because Putin could play the role that Soviet hardliner Yegor Ligachev played under Mikhail Gorbachev, as a convenient bogeyman to blame for the failure of a political liberalization that the ruling elite actually does not want (“Vlast,” RTVi television and Ekho Moskvy radio, May 9). Belkovsky, it should be noted, had repeatedly insisted that Putin wanted to relinquish power and predicted, erroneously, that Putin would not serve as Medvedev’s prime minister (see EDM, December 19, 2007, and January 7).
Still other observers predict that Medvedev and Putin will inevitably wind up in a battle for supremacy. As Boris Vishnevsky wrote in Novaya gazeta, the power that Russia’s constitution confers on the presidency is virtually unchecked, and the prime minister essentially serves at the president’s pleasure. Even the parliament’s power to impeach a president remains nominal, given that impeachment requires the approval of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, which is made up of representatives of governors who are appointed by the president. This means, according to Vishnevsky, either Medvedev will voluntarily refrain from exercising his full powers or will change the system by transferring powers from the presidency to the prime minister’s post.
Thus, the only guarantee of stability in the Medvedev-Putin ruling tandem is their personal relationship and “the hope that the new president will always remember that he owes absolutely everything to his predecessor,” wrote Vishnevsky. “But this will not always be so: any president will get tired of being de facto No. 2, knowing that he is de jure No. 1. Putin, who by virtue of his first profession does not trust anyone completely, cannot but know this. And thus the second variant, a redistribution of power despite previous promises, looks more probable.” According to Vishnevsky, however, it is hard to believe that Medvedev will offer no resistance to such a redistribution of power. “All the more so given that he will be surrounded by people who are thirsting for power, money, access to resources and the possibility of settling accounts with their enemies,” he wrote, “and knowing firmly that autocratic power is concentrated in the hands of their boss, not in those of the ‘national leader.’”
Vishnevsky concluded, “A conflict is inevitable, the only thing that is unclear is when it will start and in whose favor it will conclude. The only thing that is clear is the result: autocracy cannot be divided by two” (Novaya gazeta, May 12).