The United Russia congress on 17 December was supposed to be the big event. Billboards all over Russia have been proclaiming ‘Putin’s Plan – Russia’s Victory!,’ but only he seemed to know what the plan was. In the end, the choice was already made. On 10 December Putin surprised everyone with a pre-emptive announcement that Dmitrii Medvedev, Deputy Prime Minister and Chair of Gazprom, was his chosen successor, and had the leadership of four main parties endorse the move, United Russia included. The only surprise at the conference was the size of the vote: 478 for Medvedev and one against. The surprise, according to the ‘political technologist’ and newly-elected United Russia Duma member Sergei Markov, was that the one vote against was probably a retrospective invention. “Everyone knew it was political suicide to vote against”‘.
Was this the final surprise? Is everything now set? One thing we do know is that we are not supposed to know what ‘Putin’s Plan’ actually is until the final moment. The name of the game is to keep everybody guessing. Putin has however, already done enough for his overall priorities to be reasonably clear.
First, he has sought to avoid becoming a ‘lame duck’ for as long as possible. In the US, presidents used to be declared a lame duck between a lost election in November and their rival’s inguarartion the following January. More generally, a second term president’s ebbing patronage powers have often led to political attention drifting elsewhere. Then, a president in trouble could be holed below the water before his time was due. Finally, most recently, with the idea of a ‘permanent campaign’, a president can become a lame duck almost as soon as their second term begins, once their own final personal campaign was over.
From this perspective, Putin has played the game extraordinarily well, and is still apparently dominant with only months of his term left to run.
Second, Putin aims to preserve the political and economic status quo established after the Yukos affair began in 2003. Most importantly, this means maintaining the balance between the various clans in government. This principle has two corollaries. The currently most powerful clan, the faction of the ‘siloviki’ led by Igor Sechin, must not be allowed to let its recent self-aggrandisement get out of control. If Medvedev is President, the Sechin group will be strong enough to balance him, but this would not be true the other way around. Medvedev is Putin’s man, and does not head a powerful ‘clan‘ of his own. In fact, this is a reason for thinking Putin will indeed hang around, to ‘protect’ Medvedev if needed.
On the opposite flank, the ‘old oligarchs’ of the 1990s, some of whom are still close to Medvedev, must not be allowed to make too public a comeback . Putin and his acolytes base their whole ideology on a negative image of the 1990s, so Medvedev associates like Aleksandr Voloshin and Anatolii Chubais, both now in United Energy Systems, will be discouraged from playing too public a role.
Third, Putin seeks to protect what he deems to be his key achievements. He is proud to have restored order and Russia’s great power status after the ‘chaos’ of the Yeltsin years. Medvedev is close to him both personally and in policy terms. There will be no sudden changes in strategy if Medvedev succeeds.
Fourth, Putin is anxious not to allow the transition and the apparent decision to allow a limited ‘duumvirate’ to create any pressure points in the system, around which warring clans might coalesce. At the very least, he now seems committed to seeing out 2008 as Prime Minister to check that the new system is working. If it does not, there are still several other options.
Despite being only 42, Medvedev could announce his ill-health and retire. Now that United Russia has a constitutional (two-thirds’) Duma majority, changing the rules still cannot be ruled out. At least the threat of this possibility is an important restraint on others. The idea of taking over the presidency of a revamped Belarus-Russia Union, which could also be open to the ‘unrecognised republics ‘ like Abkhazia, has many drawbacks, however. Not least, according to Andrei Zolotov, editor of Russia Profile, “the Milosevic scenario [Milosevic swapped the Yugoslav and Serbian presidencies] is very closely associated with Yeltsin in the Russian political class”, and when Yeltsin toyed with the idea in 1999 it smacked of desperation.
And Putin may take another post. An outside possibility is still that his promise to serve as Prime Minister under Medvedev is only a necessary means of shoring up the latter’s vote in March.
Problems, however, they are likely to be. Putin has promised not to transfer any constitutional powers, but the position of Prime Minister has traditionally been subordinate – though the constitution may be more flexible than many think. The idea that Putin will still take the media spotlight ignores the functional realities of presidential office. The idea that Prime Minister Putin can still run foreign policy also seems counter-intuitive. Who will run the security services, given Medvedev’s lack of FSB background? However loyal Medvedev may be, the office may make the man. However much he does not wish to overshadow Putin, he will still want to look good.
Not everyone is happy with the deal. Obviously not Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, who had hoped to be the heir. Nor is it yet clear what role the siloviki, and the Sechin group in particular, will play after March. The system will not balance if they have not been promised something, but it is not yet clear what this is.
The Kremlin also faces short-term management problems and a delicate balancing act before the presidential election due on 2 March. Medvedev has Putin’s endorsement, but must not overshadow him. If United Russia won 64% in December, then Medvedev must win less in March. Turnout should also be lower than the 63% claimed for the Duma, but both the vote and Medvedev’s majority should still be respectable. With the other candidates so far in the race either usual suspects like the Communist Leader Gennadii Ziuganov or liberals with miniscule support like Vladimir Bukovskii, the Kremlin may find it has to run another loyal candidate just to keep Medvedev’s vote down.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.