Match Made in Heaven

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President Vladimir Putin's decision to serve as prime minister should First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev become the next president has made the duo's electoral success in March a virtual certainty. Although Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Liberal Democrat Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky are running -- in contrast with 2004, when they fielded stand-ins -- neither will get more than 15 percent of the vote. And it will be difficult for Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov to get more than 2 percent of the vote.

But, while Medvedev's victory in the first round of voting appears assured, important questions will arise after the ballots are counted: How will power be distributed between Medvedev and Putin? Who will be in charge? Will Russia have to rewrite its laws and Constitution to give the prime minister more official power? Is Putin risking his political future by accepting a formally secondary role and making himself accountable for all social and economic policy?

The Constitution does not allow for a "technical presidency." The head of state has extensive powers, which alone indicates that Medvedev will be a strong president. Moreover, Medvedev is a strong-willed politician and a very experienced administrator.

But Putin will be a strong prime minister, if only because he's Putin. He is set to remain the most popular person in the country for a long time to come. In consenting to become prime minister, Putin is well aware of what to expect. After all, he served as prime minister for several months in 1999.

Many commentators underestimate the prime minister's powers. According to the Constitution, the prime minister is head of the executive branch, and the government is empowered to determine the main direction of domestic and foreign policy.

Much depends on who is prime minister; heavyweight politicians holding the office can potentially eclipse the president. Recall Yevgeny Primakov or Putin at the end of Boris Yeltsin's last presidential term, when it was obvious to everyone that the prime minister was running the country. The 2008 version of Prime Minister Putin will undoubtedly be stronger than the 1999 version. So no changes are required to the laws or the Constitution for him to remain a key political player. But Medvedev -- youthful, energetic and with a fresh mandate -- will be far stronger than Yeltsin was in 1999.

A powerful prime minister seems preferable. One of the chief weaknesses in the design of Russia's constitution is that power is separated from accountability. The president has the most power, but the government is held accountable for policy results.

From this standpoint, the U.S. model, for example, is more successful because the head of state also leads the government. While not entirely addressing the flaws in the design, the new situation -- with the strongest political figure heading the executive branch -- will permit more effective performance by the government, which is still battling to recover from Putin's administrative reforms of 2004.

Many commentators have reproached Putin for agreeing to take a job that they say is beneath him. As prime minister, he would assume responsibility for building roads, social services, inflation and many other problems that could undermine his popularity. But Putin should be thanked rather than reproached.

But how stable will this new polycentric system of governance be? How long will Medvedev remain president and Putin prime minister? What if they quarrel?

Of course, stability requires agreement between the two key actors; and there are sure to be plenty of opponents and allies trying to stir up trouble between them. But Putin and Medvedev have worked together for more than 17 years with no serious conflicts. Moreover, Putin has never made a mistake about the loyalty of the people he promotes.

In the Yeltsin era, sacked officials often took revenge by publishing their tell-all memoirs about their ex-bosses. In the Putin era, no one has done so. Former prime minister and Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov was inherited from Yeltsin. When Putin made the most important appointment of his life -- his choice of successor -- one can be sure that his calculations were thorough.

So Medvedev will become the next president and will hold that office for at least one full term. And Putin will remain prime minister throughout that time, with a good chance of becoming president again in 2012 or 2016 -- or after any other presidential election over the next two decades.

Vyacheslav Nikonov is president of the Politika Foundation. © Project Syndicate