Russia has effectively closed down for the long holidays as the Orthodox Easter comes close to May Day, which opens the traditional week of dacha spring works to be concluded by the always high-spirited celebrations of Victory Day. Coming back to business after this break, Russia will find itself to be a different country, since Dmitri Medvedev is to be inaugurated as president on May 7 and will assume the colossal power granted to this office by the constitution. It is entirely plausible that his first act will be to nominate Vladimir Putin as prime minister, and the entirely compliant State Duma might approve him without even formally opening debates. Nevertheless, the changes in the system of power will be significant and not entirely predictable.
Putin has announced that his plan for a new cabinet is finalized and that he will increase the number of deputy prime ministers from five to perhaps ten (RBC Daily; Vedomosti, April 21). While the names of the cabinet members have not been disclosed, current Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov is signing orders, one after another, for appointing Putin’s aides, such as Deputy Press-Secretary Dmitri Peskov, to the expanding government apparatus (www.newsru.com, April 25). Meanwhile, the State Duma is contemplating to what degree it is allowed to have its own opinions (Kommersant, Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 25). It is clear that the government is going to have the strongest profile it has ever had in Russia’s post-Soviet history, but it is not at all clear what sort of presidency is in the making.
Medvedev has revealed nothing about the reorganization of the presidential administration, his main bastion of administrative powers (Vedomosti, April 23). Putin’s demonstrative pulling of the political blanket over to his side during recent foreign visits, including the anti-climactic performance at the NATO summit in Bucharest, as well as the rather odd decision to assume the newly-created position of chairman of the United Russian party without joining its swollen ranks, have not triggered even a hint of displeasure from the president-elect (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 16). The political elite appears genuinely lost in doubt about whether Medvedev is content to be just a figurehead or is planning a sudden transfiguration into a master of the Kremlin court with the monopoly of allocating guilt and punishment.
Public opinion is not so much divided as it is confused in interpreting the situation, with 47 percent confirming that supreme power should be in Medvedev’s hands (only 17 percent insist on Putin, and 27 percent go for equal sharing). Only 22 percent think that Medvedev will act independently compared with 67 percent who assume that he will remain under the control of Putin and his court (www.levada.ru, April 17). The bureaucratic clans are much less certain about Putin’s ability to maintain control, hence the escalating infighting that bursts to surface in various places, from Semen Vainshtok’s sudden resignation as the head of Olimpstroi, the company that is rebuilding Sochi into an Olympic capital, to the political attacks on regional leaders in Kalmykia, Stavropol krai, Amur and Leningrad oblast (Ezhednevny zhurnal, April 24). Perhaps the most dramatic conflict is in the State Prosecution where the sacking of Dmitri Dovgy, the head of the Main Investigation Department, was followed by the reshuffling of groups investigating high-profile cases, including that of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak (Kommersant, April 24). This public squabble shows that even trusted Putin cadre, like Aleksandr Bastyrkin, the head of the Investigation Committee, cannot rely on the support of their formerly omnipotent boss.
Asserting control over numerous special services and “power structures” will be a hard challenge for both Medvedev and Putin. For the former it is a key part of the task of re-inventing himself as Commander-in-Chief; for the latter the issue is not only his position in the system of power but also the integrity of this system. The experiment with establishing two centers of power in a rigidly centralized hierarchy inevitably involves the risk of giving some self-propelled (and armed) bureaucracies too much space for maneuvering between the Kremlin and the White House (Expert, April 21). This risk is certain to increase if the newly-empowered government should become paralyzed by a change of economic fortune, which has been extraordinary generous to Russia for very long time.
“Overheating” is the word that experts drop as self-evident, but the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade rejects it as misleading, insisting that the 8 percent growth in the first quarter is entirely healthy (Kommersant, April 22). The most worrisome symptom is certainly inflation, which has already climbed to 6 percent, when the target figure for the entire year is still 10 percent. The month of May is expected to bring a new jump as the attempt to freeze prices on certain “socially sensitive” goods is set to expire, leaving the government with the electoral period commitment to adjust pensions and salaries in the public sector in order to secure real growth in personal income (www.gazeta.ru, April 23). It is clear that the pattern of accelerating the increase of state expenditures has to be broken, but every “national project” from the construction for the Olympics in Sochi to the East Siberia-Pacific oil pipeline needs funding greatly in excess of the original estimates. At the same time, the fast-maturing state corporations confidently pursue their own parochial economic policies, with Rostekhnologii demanding the transfer of valuable industrial assets and the right to distribute colossal funds from the state budget, and Gazprom waging a hostile takeover campaign against TNK-BP (Kommersant, April 24, Vedomosti April, 25).
Putin may now be facing anxiety about losing the many small vestiges of power that he has enjoyed more than the power itself, but these petty worries might soon merge into a greater panic about the viability of his power-sharing scheme improvised in a rather haphazard way during his second presidential term. He has succeeded in leaving himself the option of jumping ship and returning to the Kremlin, but his “executive vertical” demands a total commitment. Without such commitment, its transmogrification might quickly turn interesting indeed.