As two Russian newspapers, Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Moskovsky korrespondent, correctly predicted last month (see EDM, March 28), President Vladimir Putin agreed on April 15 to become chairman of the United Russia party. Announcing at the party’s ninth annual congress in Moscow that he was “ready to take added responsibility and head United Russia,” Putin declared, “I promise that I will do everything to strengthen the party’s influence and authority, to use its capabilities in the interests of the country’s development” (Moscow Times, April 16). Contrary to last month’s predictions, however, Putin will not actually join United Russia. Changes made to the party’s charter on April 14 created the post of party chairman and allowed it to be filled by a non-party member, Putin will lead the country’s ruling party without actually belonging to it.
Some analysts earlier predicted that Putin would become the head of United Russia and forge a role in today’s Russia analogous to that of the Soviet Communist Party general secretary (see “Putin’s Political Strategy & the Rise of Sergei Naryshkin,” Evgueni Novikov, Jamestown Foundation Occasional Paper, August 2007). In an apparent reference to Putin’s vow in his speech to the United Russia congress to “reduce bureaucracy” within the party and “eliminate from its ranks the random people who are simply there to pursue their selfish interests” (www.kremlin.ru, April 15), Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted an unnamed regional leader as saying that any decision Putin takes as United Russia’s leader vis-à-vis regional officials who are United Russia members will be taken as an “immediate signal” to the siloviki (the police or security services) to take action against those officials. As International Institute of Political Expertise director Yevgeny Minchenko told the newspaper, “The post of chairman of the party will allow Putin to control elections. Putin has received a colossal resource of influence on the local elites” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 16).
But chairman of United Russia will only be one of Putin’s roles. Perhaps more significantly, he will also be prime minister. Indeed, in his speech to the United Russia congress on April 15, Putin announced that he had accepted President-elect Dmitry Medvedev’s invitation to serve as prime minister. Medvedev, who also addressed the congress, noted United Russia’s 315-seat majority in the 450-seat State Duma and indicated that Putin’s dual role as United Russia leader and prime minister would “result in the creation and consolidation of a really powerful political force . . . different from anything we have ever had before” (www.kremlin.ru, April 15).
It is therefore understandable that a growing number of observers are seeing a shift of power away from the Kremlin and the presidency to the Russian White House and the prime minister’s post. Konstantin Simonov, general director of the National Energy Security Fund, wrote in Vedomosti that Putin was in the process of shifting control over the regions to the Russian White House by instituting a new system for rating the effectiveness of regional governors, which will be run by the cabinet. It will also give the cabinet effective control over the presidential envoys to the seven federal districts. According to Simonov, Putin is also consolidating the state-owned shares in the Gazprom and Rosneft energy giants into “one structure,” while Rosneftegaz, the state company that currently holds the state’s shares in Rosneft, will fall under his authority as prime minister (Vedomosti, April 15).
Therefore, Putin’s agreement to serve as United Russia’s formal leader can be seen as, among other things, another signal to the Russian elite that he remains in charge of the country, or, put another way, is serving a de facto third term (see EDM, April 2).
“The person who controls both the executive and legislative branches (it’s not important how the constitutional majority in the parliament was obtained) really is the number one figure,” wrote Mark Urnov, director of the Expertise Foundation, a Moscow-based research institute. “And the position of the president is essentially weakened, not only in terms of the mechanisms for making and carrying out decisions but also in the eyes of the regional and other elites, which is no less important. The citizens of Russia, having had a presidential republic in mind when they voted for president, wound up after the [March presidential] election in a different type of country. We now have a regime in which the main role is played by a person who was not popularly elected. The main figure is somehow or other appointed according to intra-elite agreements and is legitimized by the very same Duma that has been under his control from the very beginning. During the last eight years an authoritarian regime . . . has been developing on the basis of democracy, and we now have the formalization of an authoritarian regime: the exemption of the supreme authorities from dependence on elections” (www.grani.ru, April 15).