The Master and Medvedev

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

putin and medvedev
(Photo credit: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA/Corbis

Dmitry Anatol’yevich Medvedev’s inauguration as Russia’s president was supposed to ensure stability—for his predecessor, mentor, and now self-selected prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and for the Russian people, who are enjoying their first sustained prosperity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In effect, when Russian voters went to the polls in March, they granted Putin, whose approval rating hovers between 70 and 80 percent, the moral and de facto right to remain the country’s leader, albeit one working from Russia’s White House (the seat of government) and not the Kremlin.

Yet far from settling the issue of who runs Russia, the instatement of the Medvedev-Putin duo opens an era potentially fraught with danger. Not only does any form of power-sharing run counter to the currents of Russian history, but Medvedev’s electoral victory followed nasty factional struggles among those passed over by Putin—struggles that could still bear bitter fruit. And despite Medvedev’s demonstrated loyalty, the alchemy of power may yet inspire him to unseat the man who put him in office.

Dyarchy has never worked in Russia. Most recently, in 1993, the standoff between President Boris Yeltsin and his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, ended only when the former shelled the latter’s lair in the White House. (Russia has had no vice president since then.) Traditions of autocracy, in fact, extend back to the 15th-century rise of Muscovy and have left an indelible, even determining, imprint on Russian political consciousness. For many Russians, the chaos of the Yeltsin years—when the Kremlin commanded little respect and ceded powers to other branches of government, regions, and up-and-coming oligarchs—only affirmed the validity of autocratic traditions. Now, with two centers of power forming, the situation is inherently unstable.

Not that Medvedev, whose surname happens to derive from medved, or “bear,” looks ready to pick a fight. Slender, soft-spoken, nattily turned out, and two inches shorter than his mentor (who is 5 foot 7), Medvedev would blend in with the financial types sipping their lattes at a Midtown Manhattan Starbucks. Born in 1965 in Leningrad, the only child of a professor and a teacher, Medvedev grew up in a cramped apartment he nevertheless remembers fondly, joined the Komsomol (the Communist Youth), and performed his military service at law school in what amounted to the Soviet ROTC. As did so many young Soviets in the 1980s, he pined after Levi’s and Wrangler jeans and Pink Floyd albums. He married his high-school sweetheart, Svetlana, and has a young son. A bright student by most accounts, he received his doctorate in civil law and served as an assistant professor at his law-school alma mater. In 1991, Anatoly Sobchak, the professor of jurisprudence who became St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor, was impressed enough to invite him to join his administration.

At City Hall that year, Medvedev met the person on whom his fate would turn: Putin, the former KGB agent whom Sobchak had hired to run St. Petersburg’s external-affairs committee. Putin and Medvedev developed a fraternal relationship, with Putin, at 13 years senior, playing the role of older brother. In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow to head the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Three years later, in August 1999, Yeltsin named Putin prime minister. Aging, ailing, often drunk, and damaged by repeated scandals and the country’s economic collapse, Yeltsin was looking to leave office in 2000 without facing jail (or the seizure of his assets, to be sure). He appointed Putin as his successor with the understanding, it is believed, that Putin would allow him to retire as “Russia’s First President” free from the threat of persecution.

Putin ran for office in 2000 promising a diktatura zakona (“dictatorship of the law”) based on the restoration of the Russian state—a winning slogan among a people laid low by a decade of corruption, mafia banditry, and what they saw as humiliation by the West. After running Putin’s campaign, Medvedev served as his chief of staff, and soon found himself named chairman of the energy giant Gazprom, Russia’s largest company and the supplier of 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas—an early sign that Putin might favor him as his successor over other apparently more qualified senior aspirants.

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.