Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally designated First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor. Almost immediately, Medvedev announced that he will ask Putin to be his prime minister “in the interests of the continuity of Putin’s internal and foreign policies” (RIA-Novosti, December 12). Medvedev — a small man and faceless bureaucrat with zero public charisma — stressed that he is a “member of Putin’s team.” There is virtually no chance Medvedev will lose the presidential elections next March 2, because not only does he have Putin’s endorsement, but the incumbent but also announced that he knows Medvedev very well and has worked with him for many years (RIA-Novosti, December 10).
If the Russian Duma elections of December 2 were unfair and non-transparent (see EDM, December 5), then the forthcoming presidential elections may be even less democratic. In the Duma elections Putin — the popular supreme leader — helped United Russia to get millions of genuine votes from the population in addition to the pro-Kremlin vote organized thorough rigging and ballot stuffing. Medvedev is not that popular, and the Kremlin will need to go to great lengths to arrange a first-round majority to get Medvedev elected on the first ballot. The population will surely be shamelessly brainwashed by the state-controlled TV propaganda machine, and Putin will be called out to campaign to get the right result.
In the end, all this effort will create a new, but weak president. Medvedev will be the leader in name, but with diminished authority. Under the Russian Constitution, the president appoints the prime minister, who is subordinate to him in everyday work and can be dismissed. But the loyalty of the Russian ruling bureaucracy will be divided – no one will know for sure who is the true chief, who controls the rewards, and who can punish whom. Serious interdepartmental strife and bureaucratic stalemate are inevitable.
Today, when Putin is the highly popular undisputed authoritarian leader, the Kremlin is still split into fighting factions, with the siloviki openly attacking each other. On October 9, Viktor Cherkesov, chief of the Federal Drug Control Service and Putin’s old KGB pal, published an open letter in Kommersant warning that rival security factions were heading for a “war.” The letter came several days after the Federal Security Service arrested one of Cherkesov’s deputies, General Alexander Bulbov, on charges of illegal wiretapping. The Investigative Committee is leading the case against Bulbov (see EDM, October 11). Last week another public turf war between rival siloviki factions erupted over corruption charges against Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, as the Investigative Committee threatened the Prosecutor General’s Office with legal action (Moscow Times, December 7).
If Medvedev becomes a quasi-president and Putin a “super” prime minister, then the situation may get worse. The ambiguity of the situation may encourage different siloviki factions (security, intelligence, and military) to fight each other for position, influence, and money. Today Russia is already poorly governed, and Putin has complained that his orders are not carried out. Under a weak president Russia may sink into organizational chaos, as happened in 1996-99 during the second term of the ailing President Boris Yeltsin. This inter-bureaucratic chaos may be exacerbated by runaway inflation in an economy already overheated by massive petrodollar injections.
Putin may be contemplating the creation of a stable collective leadership formed by his different pals, but Russia does not have the skills necessary to form stable, Latin-American style collective authoritarian ruling junta structures. In Russia periods of “collective leadership” without a clearly defined overall chief — such as after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the dismissal of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, and the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, the transition from Yeltsin to Putin at the end of 1999 and beginning of 2000 — were transient in nature and ended with the arrival of a new tsar. Russia’s system of government is truly dysfunctional when there is not a supreme leader in the Kremlin.
It is possible that Putin has specifically selected Medvedev as his successor because he is loyal and will need support. After several months of haphazard rule, a weak President Medvedev might resign and clear the way for Putin’s reelection — to save the nation from chaos and restore stability. The scenario of a short-lived successor to Putin, who will be soon replaced by Putin again, has been much discussed in Russia.
There is still one other possibility — Medvedev may emerge as a true leader, cleansing the system of disloyal siloviki using the extensive powers conferred on the Russian president by the constitution and the system of centralized authoritarian bureaucratic governance. In 1999 Putin himself was a faceless bureaucrat with zero charisma, as Medvedev is today. But in order to transform himself into a true and beloved leader of Russia, Medvedev will need to strip Putin of all vestiges of power and popular support. The state-controlled TV propaganda machine could do that in just a few weeks, should it decide to publicize the massive high-level corruption and numerous unsolved crimes committed during Putin’s rule.