Yesterday’s announcement by United Russia and three other parties that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will be their candidate in the March 2008 presidential election, followed by President Vladimir Putin’s blessing of Medvedev’s candidacy, appears at first glance to mean that “Operation Successor” has been completed. Most commentators view the choice of Medvedev as a sign that the current occupant of the Kremlin will not completely relinquish political power, with only the question of exactly how the Putin will exercise power after he leaves the presidency remaining unanswered. Some observers, however, are not even certain Medvedev will remain the unchallenged successor prior to the March 2008 presidential election. Still others believe that if Medvedev does indeed succeed Putin as president, his power will be limited by the siloviki, the powerful Kremlin faction of security service veterans reputedly headed by Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin, who will be given enhanced powers as consolation for the fact that their main political wish – that Putin remain in power – was not granted.
According to one theory, Putin chose Medvedev as his successor in order to leave himself the widest choice of future options, given Medvedev’s lack of an independent power-base, relatively weak personality, and almost sibling-like relationship to the current president. “Medvedev leaves Putin with freedom of action, guaranteeing him comfort and security in the event that [Putin] gives up power and giving him back the presidential seat in the event that the current president decides to return in pre-term elections,” said independent State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (Moskovsky Korrespondent, December 10).
Some observers have gone further, suggesting that Putin will continue to exercise power actively during Medvedev’s presidency. Vremya novostei quoted an unnamed “high-ranking official” as saying that, regardless of his future plans, Putin will try to leave the impression that he will return to the presidency. The official said that such “signals” from Putin about a possible return to power would let him “control the balance of forces of the power groups” during the first two years of Medvedev’s presidency, while the need to exercise such control will diminish in the second half of Medvedev’s term with the start of a new presidential election campaign. While it is unclear what formal position (if any) Putin will occupy during Medvedev’s presidency, the unnamed official asserted that Putin will act as “an exclusive adviser to the future president on an unlimited range of issues.”
As for Putin’s possible formal role, he could, according to one scenario, become head of United Russia. As Svetlana Babaeva wrote in the weekly magazine Profil just prior to the announcement of Medvedev’s candidacy, United Russia may pick Putin as party leader during its congress scheduled for December 17. United Russia’s “constitutional majority” in the State Duma means the party will have complete control “not only of the parliament, but also the government and the next president,” she wrote, given that if Putin’s successor does something United Russia and Putin do not like, they can impeach him. “Thus, Putin, through the party and on the basis of the credit of the voters’ trust, controls the situation while remaining, as it were, outside the [governing] institutions,” she wrote, noting that such a “construction” would be reminiscent of the Soviet system, with the government controlled by the ruling party and its leader (Profil, December 10).
A more exotic possible scenario was floated on December 7, when Ekho Moskvy, citing sources in Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s inner circle, reported that Putin, who is traveling to Minsk on December 13-14 to discuss a Russia-Belarus Union draft constitution, will sign a union agreement during the visit. The radio station quoted the Belarusian sources as saying Putin will become president of a new Russia-Belarus unified state after he steps down from the Russian presidency next year, with Lukashenka becoming head of the Russia-Belarus Union parliament. The Ekho Moskvy report was dismissed by spokesmen for Putin and Lukashenka. Still, Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) head Gennady Zyuganov said that the choice of Medvedev as successor could be evidence that Putin has “serious plans” for “the forced creation” of a Russia-Belarus union state. “Using the constitutional majority in the State Duma, a referendum on the issue could be carried out next year, and by the end of the year, Putin may become president of the union state,” Zyuganov said (Rosbalt, December 10).
Meanwhile, some observers have warned that it is too early to assume Operation Successor has been completed. Some believe that Putin’s green light to the four pro-Kremlin parties to choose Medvedev as their presidential candidate was less a strategic than a tactical move aimed at shifting the balance of power away from the siloviki, who have become increasingly aggressive, as shown in the arrest of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, a close ally of liberal Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, for alleged embezzlement. Thus Medvedev may not be Putin’s final choice as successor. Indeed, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky called Medvedev a “trial” choice for successor who was picked to test public reaction, and suggested that Medvedev’s candidacy could be rescinded (Novye Region Information Agency, December 10). Likewise, Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said: “It is still too early to speak of Medvedev as the successor. Too much can still happen. The question is what stands behind the nomination – a plan to lead him to victory in the presidential election or, on the contrary, the intention to burn him up in the fire that will now, of course, begin and thereby make any other variant possible” (Grani.ru, December 10).
Still, the apparent choice of Dmitry Medvedev to succeed Vladimir Putin has been greeted both by Russian financial markets and many in the West as the best possible outcome for Operation Successor, given Medvedev’s reputation as a Westernized technocrat, if not a liberal. But even if he does succeed Putin – and is able to act independently of his predecessor – it is far from clear that he will be able act independently of the siloviki. Indeed, Vedomosti quoted two unnamed sources “close to the Kremlin” as saying that the choice of Medvedev as successor does not mean Russia will follow a liberal economic course. “The president [Putin] will probably counterbalance Medvedev with the siloviki and supporters of a hard state line, who will be appointed to key state posts,” one of the sources told the newspaper. Vedomosti quoted the other source as saying that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a perceived hardliner who lost out to Medvedev in the race to become the anointed successor, will become prime minister under Medvedev, while Igor Sechin will be made the head of a large state corporation (Vedomosti, December 11). Kommersant also quoted a source “close to the Kremlin” as saying that Sergei Ivanov will probably be named Medvedev’s prime minister and that Ivanov’s premiership will be more in “the format of a vice-president” (Kommersant, December 11). However, Newsru.com reported on December 11 that Medvedev had invited Putin to serve as prime minister following next year’s presidential election.