Will Russia’s new President play second fiddle for long?

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Matt Stone at the Global Buzz challenges the conventional wisdom on Russia:

Conventional wisdom suggests that the next president of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, will play second fiddle to the outgoing president and putative prime minister Vladimir Putin. The conventional wisdom is often wrong and I’ve compiled a list of reasons why Medvedev may become the real power broker in Moscow. The main assumption of my thinking on Russia is that the threat to domestic stability does not come from the populace, which for the most part wants nothing to do with political protest and upheaval. Rather, the main threat to domestic stability is to be found amongst the business and political elite. Putin has been successful because he has prevented the development of alternative power centres outside the purview of the Kremlin by centralizing control of oil and gas revenues with the federal government and by using selective enforcement of the law to destroy potential opponents and create an example to others (think: Khodorkovsky). Thus, the real shift in power will not occur by way of approval ratings and popular appeal, but how effectively Medvedev and Putin marshal the business and political elite to sign on to their agenda of kleptocratic enrichment. Do Putin and Medvedev work together on this? Or does jealousy crop up in their relationship, causing a rupture? I tend to lean toward the latter view.

Anyways here’s that list:

1. Constitutionally and traditionally, the office of president confers more power to its holder than the office of prime minister.

2. Medvedev commands a lot of respect and loyalty inside Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant for which he has served as chairman. Because Gazprom is a very powerful state entity unto itself – the tail that sometimes wags the dog – Medvedev has a built-in support base to counter the former KBG cadres (the siloviki) that have remained loyal to Putin.

3. Loyalty to power and authority are very Russian qualities, stemming (probably) from a historical legacy of very powerful individual rulers. Insofar as the office of president confers status and power to Medvedev over a Prime Minister Putin, how loyal will the elite remain to Putin over Medvedev?

4. Does Putin underestimate Medvedev? Does more than 16 years of loyalty make a man blind to the ambition or the political wiles of his deputy?

5. The ‘Putin fatigue’ factor. Every bureaucrat and politician in Russia is ambitious and looking for opportunities for advancement. For the past eight years, the bureaucracy has become stultified. Advancement, and the subsequent opportunities for enrichment, were predicated on whether Putin likes/trusts you. A new president, even one as cut from Putin’s own cloth as Medvedev, shakes things up. To what extent will some political and business elites who felt sidelined or under-appreciated by President Putin try to convince a President Medvedev to stab Putin in the back? And to what extent do certain factions try to preempt this possibility by interfering in the functioning of President Medvedev’s administration – and does this provoke a backlash from the Medvedev cohort?

I feel that reason #5 is probably the best argument for why Medvedev and Putin will not remain a cohesive political unit in the years ahead. There will be a lot of pressure on Medvedev to overturn the Putin order of things and allow a new group of ambitious bureaucrats and pols to capture a greater share of the resource spoils. There will be a similar amount of pressure on Putin to ensure that Medvedev doesn’t assert too much independence. Watch this space.

One thought on “Will Russia’s new President play second fiddle for long?

  1. Mainstream predictions the outcome of power struggles and ideological shifts in Russia seems about as reliable as horoscopes. I think even the advocates of the conventional wisdom, are ready to start asking Magic 8 Balls.