The Master and Medvedev

Why Vladimir Putin’s successful effort to handpick his replacement may backfire

Just before the presidential elections, Medvedev showed a willingness to state the obvious, citing, euphemistically yet tellingly, the “legal nihilism” that is “preventing the country from developing harmoniously.” This “legal nihilism”—the disdain so many Russians display for the law—derives in part from the flagrant, Kremlin-sanctioned injustices of the Yeltsin years, in part from centuries-old traditions of predatory, frequently despotic governance. It also stems, paradoxically, from Putin’s imposition of authoritarian rule, which he accomplished by emasculating state structures and by appointing to key posts clannish fellow siloviki (members of the security services) loyal to him alone. The law of the land has become Putin, or, for most Russians, Putin’s underlings and front men, whose dealings are widely known and often despised.

Having amassed considerable power that they could now lose, Putin’s siloviki must be feeling something other than gratitude toward their boss for choosing Medvedev (who has no ties to them) as his successor. The slighted inner circle includes, most prominently, Igor Sechin, Putin’s deputy chief of presidential administration and chairman of Rosneft (Russia’s largest oil company). Sechin leads a clan comprising FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev and Minister of Justice Vladimir Ustinov, who have at their disposal Russia’s still-formidable apparatus of espionage, arrest, and punishment. Prevailing over Sechin’s group was Medvedev’s “liberal” clan, which includes Viktor Cherkesov, chief of the Federal Drug Control Service; Viktor Zolotov, in charge of presidential security; the oligarch Roman Abramovich; and members of the “Family,” Yeltsin’s old clique.

In an environment of “legal nihilism,” Putin cannot be assured of his future should he truly relinquish power. If he were no longer atop the chain of command, he could not protect himself from persecution—especially given the recent shocking allegations in the Western press of a personal fortune in the tens of billions of dollars, including hefty blocks of shares in Russian gas and oil companies. As hard as these allegations would be to prove, they could serve as grounds for investigation and prosecution.

Hence Putin’s need for a “liberal” successor to offset the ambitious siloviki. If he had anointed a silovik with a functioning power base, he might have brought on his own doom. But by orchestrating Medvedev’s rise, Putin has outsmarted—and possibly imperiled—all those in Sechin’s clan. Moreover, since Medvedev lacks strong personal ties to the security ministries, he can’t control the siloviki without his mentor’s help. Medvedev’s very haplessness before the forces that really run Russia makes him the ideal stand-in for a jealous Putin eager to hold on to power.

Or so it would appear. Thanks to the drastic imbalance in power that formally exists between Putin’s new post as prime minister and his former position as president, Putin remains vulnerable. The president is head of state, commander in chief, custodian of the nuclear suitcase, director of domestic and foreign policy, master of the security services and the Security Council, and appointer of regional governors. He may impose military law, and he also effectively controls the parastatal energy companies that drive Russia’s economy. Most important, the president can (as Yeltsin often did) dismiss the prime minister, who is tasked to serve him.

President Medvedev seems unlikely, at first blush, to fire Prime Minister Putin. After all, Medvedev’s choice of replacement would require a majority vote from the Duma, where Putin’s party still holds a 70 percent majority. But Medvedev would have the right to do so, and at a moment’s notice—which Putin cannot discount. Moreover, power has a way of growing on people as much as people grow into power: witness the transformation of the dour, awkward Putin of 2000, initially hamstrung by the damning legacy of his predecessor, into Russia’s paramount political personage and a heavyweight on the international stage.

Will Putin, as prime minister, at­-tempt to enact constitutional reforms that shift power to his office? Given the size, inflexibility, and traditional subservience of the Russian bureaucracy to the head of state—the president—this would be no mean feat. And the constitution does not outlaw a third, nonconsecutive presidential term. Will Medvedev, after a symbolic stint in the Kremlin, voluntarily resign the presidency (or be pushed out), leaving Putin to call for new elections and run for office himself? Might Belarus and Russia, with impetus from Putin, merge, as has long been the plan, thereby forcing fresh elections for the head of the new state? Or will Medvedev simply serve out his time and depart, leaving Putin the chance to return to the Kremlin via the ballot box in 2012? Or could Putin find in his position as prime minister a way to ease himself back into civilian life?

The last two possibilities would certainly be the most salutary for the country. But surprise is the key to survival in Russian politics. Unfortunately for Russia, and the rest of the world, the surprises are rarely pleasant.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent.

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