The United Russia party is holding a congress today, December 17, during which it will likely officially nominate First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as its presidential candidate, thereby formalizing a move that the party made jointly with three other pro-Kremlin parties a week ago and that was publicly blessed by President Vladimir Putin. The question now is what the incumbent president plans to do after he leaves office: will he accept Medvedev’s invitation to serve as prime minister or does he have other plans?
What is perhaps the majority view among analysts is that Medvedev would not have invited Putin to serve as prime minister had Putin not asked him to do so. What is more, Putin himself put forward the idea of becoming prime minister at the end of his presidency when he announced on October 1 that he would lead United Russia’s federal list of candidates in the State Duma election. He called the idea of becoming prime minister “entirely realistic” but added that that it was still “too early to think about it” because United Russia would have to win the parliamentary election and a “decent, competent, modern person” would have to be elected president (Associated Press, October 1).
This would suggest Putin is certain to accept Medvedev’s invitation and that the only open question is that of timing. As the Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov noted: “It seems to me that the decision has already been made. It is hard to imagine that Medvedev would make such an offer without first having consulted with Putin. When Putin will make his consent public, I don’t know.” He added that “the intrigue is maintained,” noting that Putin likes to keep people guessing (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 13).
Other observers have expressed doubts that Putin will accept Medvedev’s invitation to become prime minister. While the invitation itself is likely to further boost Medvedev’s already bright prospects for a decisive victory in next March’s presidential election by further tying his fortunes to the popular incumbent president, there are also tremendous potential pitfalls to what would in essence be a Putin-Medvedev co-leadership. The Russian edition of SmartMoney quoted an unnamed former Kremlin administration official as saying: “As I see it, this is a very difficult variant. For everyone. What does it mean to have a constitutionally strong president and much politically stronger prime minister…? Even if they have good relations, this is a big systemic problem.” According to the ex-Kremlin official, the “efficiency factor” of such an arrangement would be very low, with 95% of time and effort taken up with “internal strife” (Smoney.ru, December 17).
During an appearance on Yevgeny Kiselyov’s “Vlast” program, Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said that if elected president, Medvedev, who has no power base of his own, cannot become “the real head of all the siloviki, which is the essential part of the president’s functions,” which means that Putin will in some measure retain his functions, de jure or de facto (“Vlast,” RTVi television and Ekho Moskvy radio, December 14). Meanwhile, SmartMoney quoted an official “close” to the Kremlin administration as saying: “Those who know Medvedev say that he is capable of unpredictable drastic actions. After a year or two, he may full well decide to become the chief” (Smoney.ru, December 17). Given that the president can dismiss the prime minister, this would make some sort of collision inevitable.
Nikolai Petrov suggested that one way around this would be for Putin to assume a different post, one that would give him time either to hand over power to his successor step by step and “fade into the background completely” or to change the situation if the successor is unable to cope in that role. Petrov said this post could be that of head of the Security Council, the special constitutional advisory body that, according to existing law, is chaired by the president and, among other things, helps determine state security policy and drafts policy proposals on defending against “internal or external threats.” Petrov said an additional law on the Security Council is rumored to be in the works that would “significantly widen the functions” of both the council and the person who heads it to include the authority the president currently has over the “power bloc” (“Vlast,” RTVi television and Ekho Moskvy radio, December 14).
Some observers have still not ruled out that Putin may become the head of a unified Russia-Belarus state – or, at least, that Putin sees this as an answer to the problem of how to maintain power after he steps down as Russia’s president. While both Moscow and Minsk dismissed rumors that the two countries would sign a union agreement during Putin’s visit to Minsk last week (see EDM, December 11), the columnist Yulia Latynina noted that Putin traveled to Belarus with Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, and State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov – a rather high-level delegation for what both sides subsequently said were simply talks on a range of bilateral issues. Putin also extended the government of President Alexander Lukashenka a $1.5 billion credit.
“The formation of a union state is not simply a trump card,” wrote Latynina. “It is a joker, which President Putin can pull out of the pack at the height of the political end-game. First of all, it is an ideological triumph. It is ‘the gathering of the Russian lands.’ Yeltsin fragmented, but Putin gathered. Secondly, it is a complete revision of the entire political topography. It means changes in the constitution and elections for a new president of a union state in 2009. And who will be that president? Of course, the “gatherer of Russian lands.’ It is the kind of story that completely changes the situation of the potential successor, Medvedev. He is suddenly no longer a successor. Not even a place-keeper. He is a guard at the parking lot where the presidential chair has been parked for a moment.” However, the problem for Putin, wrote Latynina, is that Lukashenka sees nothing in this plan for him and is refusing to go along with it (Ej.ru, December 17).