viernes, junio 20, 2008

Who Is the Real Leader of Russia?

Russia's troubled history suggests that Medvedev will probably be more of a figurehead than a real president.

Ever since Dmitri Medvedev's nomination to succeed Vladimir Putin as president of Russia, followed by his election and now his inauguration, Kremlin watchers, both Russian and Western, have been discussing the so-called "Putin-Medvedev tandem" and asking who will really lead Russia. Is the duumvirate stable? Will it degenerate into squabbling among the Kremlin clans behind the scenes?
The pundits have identified four plausible scenarios. One is that President Medvedev will indeed have the principal power, including the possibility of ousting Putin as prime minister, or marginalizing him, since the Russian political system has been "super-presidential," i.e., strongly centered in the presidency, since the adoption of the new constitution by Boris Yeltsin in 1993. The second is that the system will remain centered around Prime Minister Putin through informal power mechanisms that have much more weight in this system than do the formal powers granted by the constitution; this is the scenario I consider most likely. A third is that the United Russia Party will emerge as dominant in this situation, able to make or break presidents through the electoral process. A fourth is that the whole country, or at least the government, will fall apart because of feuding among the followers of the president and the prime minister who will be unable to decide on the fair division of spoils that come with holding power in this country that covers one-sixth of the Earth's land mass.
Because the corridors of power are so completely impenetrable to outsiders, no one knows what will happen. Still, Putin and his advisers' actions in the months leading up to the election and then inauguration of Medvedev as president of the Russian Federation suggest some answers.
Putin's Trajectory
In many ways, Putin has been the most transparent of Russian leaders. Immediately upon his ascension to formal power as president in spring 2000, he spoke of a "power vertical," which he then proceeded unapologetically to construct. He proposed two years ago that he might become prime minister. On Oct. 2, 2007, at the Congress of United Russia, Putin called the notion that he might head the government "completely realistic."
There have, however, been ambiguities and contradictions throughout his two terms as president, including, most recently, with the issue of succession. Beginning in the fall of 2007, Kremlin officials and United Russia leaders began consistently calling on Putin to remain a "national leader" in order to ensure the continuity of current policies. Yet at the same time there was no official clarification as to what exactly this might entail.
Recently there also has been a profound marshaling of historical symbolism that seems to increase with every turn of the story. While systematically downplaying what they are doing, Putin and his handlers have gone to surprising lengths to marshal symbolism straight from the pages of Russian history.
Specifically, I argue that the solution in which Medvedev would be elected president in 2008 and he would then in turn name Putin as his prime minister was evolving steadily behind the scenes in ways that were not always transparent to outside observers and that support the hypothesis that Medvedev is likely to be more of a figurehead than a real president.
Because Putin famously loves surprises, he (and his handlers) did not let the public know who was going to be named heir apparent to the presidency until Dec. 10, 2007. An element of surprise and anxious waiting had become by now in the Putin presidency an element de rigueur, keeping politicians and the public guessing. Who would succeed Putin, everyone was asking. Many were convinced that Putin would truly step down because he stated so often that he would do so.
Yet my own reading of the situation was that precisely his adamant, repeated insistence that he would step down in 2008 began to sound hollow even in 2005-06. Methought the gentleman did protest too much.
In the context of what became known as the "2008 question" (would he or wouldn't he serve a third term?), Putin was claiming that he hoped there would be "continuity on policy regardless of who was in power."
He insisted that he did not want public speakers to speculate on the succession or even to use the phrase "third term."
Yet, of course, that was exactly what Kremlin watchers loved to do: speculate on what the president was going to do once his constitutionally mandated term of office was up. There was a whole cottage industry in both Russia and the United States devoted to the what-will-he-do-now question.
The Putin Plan
As early as 2001, Sergei Mironov, head of the Just Russia Party (a minor pro-Kremlin political party), already was saying two terms wouldn't be enough; Putin should be elected to a third term. Mironov first said this, in fact, the day after he was elected as chairman of the Russian Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, showing his tremendous loyalty (or should we say sycophancy) toward the president. He then went on to repeat this argument verbatim virtually every year after that.
After Putin's re-election in 2004, several other federal and especially regional lawmakers also began to make noises about a constitutional amendment that would allow a third term.
The volume of these noises increased markedly after Putin appropriated the right to appoint the governors in the wake of the Beslan crisis of September 2004. Now, even the most seemingly independent of governors (Mintimer Shaimiev, for example, in Tatarstan) began praising Putin and discussing the need for a third term. Their own self-interest dictated that they praise the sitting president who could decide their fates so unilaterally.

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