Another Twist: Putin to Become Prime Minister?

Putin and medvedev.  source - edros.ruPresident Vladimir Putin announced this week that he would become Prime Minister under his nominated successor, Dmitri Medvedev.  At a congress of the United Russia party, he told supporters that if Medvedev were to win the election, a near given, he “would be ready to continue our joint work as prime minister, without changing the distribution of authority.”  Putin’s term as president will end in March of 2008, and most political experts believe that Putin will try to stay in power one way or another.

While unexpected, the latest move is hardly surprising.  Putin is known for his secrecy, and for the unpredictability of his plans.  Only one thing is certain, in fact:  Putin is not leaving anything in the upcoming presidential election to chance.  Or, to the Russian people for that matter.

Andrei Vavra, a political commentator for RIA Novosti, discusses what Putin’s announcement means for Russia’s government, and what it shows about the system’s lack of stability:

RIA Novosti
December 18, 2007
Advanced Math or the Theory of Relativity?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Vavra) – Vladimir Putin has agreed to become prime minister! For the entire year, we were trying to guess which position he would choose so as not to give away real power.

Would he name a super-reliable successor? Go for a third term? Become the national leader? Head the Union of Russia and Belarus? Be the speaker of parliament, who controls legislative power? Or become the prime minister?

The prime minister is second only to the president and hence, formally, closest to the power. But everyone looked at the proposal of Putin becoming the prime minister as simply a signal that the current president will continue to hand out benefits to all those who will be actively involved in power after his departure. Yesterday, he made United Russia happy and did it brilliantly. Dmitry Medvedev’s turn came today. All those who will go to the presidential polls will believe that voting for Medvedev will make Putin the prime minister. They will elect Medvedev and then Putin will say – I don’t want to accept Medvedev’s proposal from three months ago because having won the nation’s trust, I can keep the power as the national leader.

To summarize, everyone believed that the option of Putin as the prime minister had nothing to do with the real configuration of power after he leaves the presidential office. The party won, the successor would win, and everything would be OK. The picture seemed to be clear enough.

But once the name of the successor became known and he offered Putin the position of prime minister, it transpired that something was amiss – nobody ever guessed what the president would do next. Why wouldn’t there be any surprises?

And all of a sudden, he is the prime minister.

Wrong guess again! The duality, which was implied after Putin’s departure in any event, has acquired a paradoxical shape after he agreed to be the prime minister. This position is different from that of the national leader, who is the last instance before God. If he so wishes, he can kiss a stranger’s child or lash out at the head of any state. The prime minister is at the top but he is still an official responsible for inflation, prompt payment of pensions, subsidized prescription drugs, and agricultural progress… He is even in charge of oil prices, on which the Russian budget hugely depends…

There is no redistribution of power between the president and the prime minister, but Putin is not Mikhail Fradkov or Viktor Zubkov. Though the “national leader” the prime minister is still appointed and accountable for many things (by the Constitution). Once again, the government is legally impeccable – nobody is talking about Putin’s third term.

But this seemingly ideal picture still compels Putin to formalize his presence in the political system. Is he worried about his successor? Is he afraid that security-related bodies will make a mess out of him? Or that the oligarchs will trample him underfoot? Or will the regional leaders get out of control? Or is he concerned that his system of power is based on personalities? In this country, people in certain positions and relations between them are more important than these positions or government institutions.

To summarize, we don’t know what it all means. But it looks like Putin himself is acknowledging the fragility of his own political system. Only one man can guarantee the effectiveness of this system and even its ability to operate. This is a system where the president is not the chief link in a chain – Putin is the only man who can perform this role.

It was obvious before that the system is fragile. The situation is clear everywhere else – either there are elections or there are none. But with us it is endless guesswork – in what form will the government preserve itself in eternity, having formally abided by all laws? What instruments will it use? What institutions? What laws? And what surprises will we be in for?

But there are no grounds to envy Putin in his new position. He will be in charge of the system’s most fragile element. The world economy develops in cycles. Everything seems to be going well and then bang! Even higher prices on food have come as a shock from the blue. What happens if the dollar falls again or there is a drop in world oil prices? What about the endless social commitments, problems of pensioners, increasing utility tariffs, the evening out of world and domestic energy prices, inflation…? The prime minister is responsible for all of that.

A thought occurred to me – how will Putin report to Medvedev? But then it dawned on me that this is Medvedev’s problem, not Putin’s…