Putin's Presidency Ends, Not His Rule

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sergei Guneyev for TIME

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister pose for press photographers, December 2007.

Russia's presidential election this Sunday is a ritual marking a prearranged transfer of power. Its formal outcome is already generally known, long before voters even enter the balloting booth — Vladimir Putin will be succeeded in the presidency by his protege, 42-year-old Dmitri Medvedev. What's less clear, however, is how power will be reallocated between the incumbent and his hand-picked successor after the election.

President Putin has heeded the requirements of Russia's constitution by stepping down after his two consecutive terms in office. On March 2, when Russians go to the polls, Medvedev — Putin's erstwhile assistant at city hall in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, then his Kremlin chief of staff, and now chairman of the board of Gazprom and first deputy prime minister — will almost certainly become Russia's President-elect. It could hardly be otherwise in a political process where independent media is muzzled and state-controlled outlets propagandize for Putin, and where real opposition is forcefully suppressed and the only competition comes from the Kremlin's traditional sparring partners — Communist party boss Gennadi Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with an unknown freemason Andrei Bogdanov thrown in for the want of other pliant "contenders." And, of course, Putin is very popular among Russians for the hydrocarbon-fueled turnaround in the country's fortunes that has occurred on his watch. So, Medvedev won't have to break a sweat to carry a landslide 73% of the vote.

Still, despite his predictable election as President, Medvedev may be less the heir to Putin's throne than its caretaker. Putin has made clear he will stay on as Medvedev's Prime Minister "for as long as [Medvedev] is President," explained Putin at his annual press conference earlier this month. (Putin has already ensured his accession to the premiership by heading the electoral list of his United Russia party in the carefully orchestrated recent Duma election, in which they achieved full control of the legislature.)

And whereas Putin's own Prime Ministers were obedient technocrats, he has a vastly expanded idea of the office now that he plans to occupy it: "The Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister, is the highest executive authority in the country," he told his press conference, adding that the Prime Minister's responsibilities will include managing the national budget, foreign and domestic policy, and national security.

By contrast, the President, in Putin's view, acts as the guarantor of the Constitution and sets policy guidelines. Medvedev doesn't have to worry about the latter, though. Speaking earlier this month to the Council of State — a largely decorative body of top federal officials and regional governors — Putin set guidelines for Russia through the year 2020. He suggested a few days later that Medvedev may "complement" elements of his blueprint.

During Putin's tenure, Russia has come back as a major world presence. This success has been literally fueled by the unprecedented rise in oil and natural gas prices — 10 times now what they were 10 years ago. Putin's two major accomplishments are to have amassed $484 billion in currency reserves, made in hydrocarbons and other raw materials exports, and to have restored the authority of a strong state, aggressively pursuing its interests abroad and harshly repressive at home.

Putin's guidelines for the next 12 years envisage implementing innovative technologies; improvement of the educational and health systems; closing the enormous gap between the rich and the poor; turning Russia into a world financial and technological center; and building a military second to none.

Hydrocarbon exports remain the core of Russia's economy, paying for the food imports that account for 85% of what Russians eat. The armed forces are getting smart designer-made uniforms this year, but not state-of the-art weaponry. Still, Putin believes that his hands-on management can achieve his ambitious agenda.

Some Russian newspapers say that, even now, the Kremlin is drafting constitutional amendments to extend the current four-year presidential term to seven years. Parliament could rubber-stamp these amendments during Medvedev's tenure, making it possible for Putin to run again for the Presidency in 2012 — and remain in office until 2026.

So, what are the incentives for a President Medvedev to play along with Putin's plan? For one, the cycle Putin may be launching now would end in 18 years, when a 73-year-old Putin could again pass the baton to Medvedev, who would then be a sprightly 60.

A more realistic incentive is Putin's intention, stated at his valedictory press conference, to privatize the state-owned corporations that dominate Russia's economy. State officials who combine high political office with top managerial jobs in state-owned corporations will likely become the legal private owners of these massive assets. Putin's faithful caretaker would certainly have the pick of the fruits of privatization. Remaining His Master's Voice and having a slice of that enormous pie should prove more alluring than conspiring to overturn the table. Should the Voice indeed be tempted to become his own Master, the nation's top security men — all Putin's watchdogs — will be there to nip such ambitions in the bud. It's the Prime Minister who will run national security now, remember?

Putin's Russia will remain Putin's Russia, at least as long as it can keep pumping the hydrocarbons that fill its coffers. Most of Russia's corporate and political bosses have long ago established their sanctuaries in the West, where they keep their money and families. It's the electorate, relentlessly incited by them against the West, who will stay behind, robbed, abandoned and desperate. But as long as the regime can keep them fed, most Russians just don't seem to care.