With Dmitry Medvedev – Putin’s favoured candidate – as President, Russia could be in for a new bout of liberalisation. But Putin will not take a back seat as Prime Minister and political conflict looks a likely outcome. After emerging from New Year’s celebrations and returning to the daily routine, the country is gradually waking up to the fact that it will soon have a new president. Those who don’t want to accept this reality can take solace in President Vladimir Putin’s promise to stay on as prime minister. But any politician’s promises must be taken with a grain of salt, and this is especially true considering that there are two politicians who are doing the promising. Putin’s chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, promised to give Putin the prime minister’s spot after assuming the presidency, and Putin promised to accept the offer. But what will happen if either of them reneges following the March election?
To be honest, it would be better for both if their plans fell through. Whatever the official line might be, Putin and Medvedev will never amount to a "dazzling duo." An overly strong prime minister would only get in the president’s way, and a weak president would only paralyze the work of his prime minister.
Medvedev is the candidate favored by the more liberal authorities, the one popular in the West, and the one capable of bringing democracy back to politics. It stands to reason, however, that Medvedev’s "democratic" reputation is just as much a myth as is the label of "dictator" that has been hung on Putin. But Medvedev’s reputation as a liberal could be a valuable asset provided he is ready to act on it. In other words, Medvedev would have to implement measures to strengthen market reforms to appease those favoring a more liberal economy. The problem, however, is that most people are fed up with market reforms, and any loosening of the Kremlin’s strong grip over the country would be exploited to resist such reforms.
If Medvedev’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2007 is taken seriously, then Russia can expect a new rendition of perestroika. But it is most amusing that the task of actually carrying out all of these measures that are doomed to fail would fall on the shoulders of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Just try to imagine Mikhail Gorbachev attempting to implement perestroika while Leonid Brezhnev was still in office, or Gorbachev issuing Brezhnev direct orders. The very idea is inconceivable.
Understandably, Medvedev and his circle might not be fully aware of exactly which obstacles they could face following the transfer of authority. The realization of the scale of the problems will come gradually, and the first difficulties demanding attention will probably be administrative conflicts stemming from the change in the composition of the leadership teams. But Putin is a far more experienced politician and should understand all of this, including the fact that the people’s love for him is ephemeral. The pendulum can swing from love to hate in the blink of an eye.
The choice before Putin is simple: accept responsibility for carrying out new reforms, thereby turning from a "national leader" into a "national scapegoat," or use his authority as prime minister to strangle the new president’s initiatives, stifle his fervor and sabotage his political program. Put differently, Putin could provoke internal political conflicts from which he might very well come out the loser. No amount of popularity could ultimately protect him from being fired. At the time, when former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was ousted by President Boris Yeltsin, he enjoyed roughly the same degree of popularity as Putin does now, but that did not save him from political catastrophe. Putin is ill-suited to play the role of an opposition leader.
In the end, it would be better for everyone if Medvedev’s promise to hand over the prime minister post to Putin simply went unfulfilled.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is The Revolt of the Middle Class (2006)
The Moscow Times, 11 January 2008