A Powerful President With Little Power

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There was never any serious discussion about whether Dmitry Medvedev would win or lose in Sunday's election. The only topic that was discussed was whether Medvedev would be able to take the power away from President Vladimir Putin.

But I think the more pertinent question to ask is if Putin has any power in the first place.

Before you indignantly answer, "Yes, of course he has power!" let me give you an example of what I mean. Two years ago, Putin visited a boy dying of leukemia at a Moscow cancer clinic for children. He ate blini and drank tea with the boy, and at the end of his visit, Putin promised to build a new cancer clinic. The entire episode with Putin, the boy and the blini was shown on national television. Two years have passed, however, and the ground has yet to be broken.

If Russia were a democracy, Putin would have been given his pink slip for not fulfilling his promise. If Russia were a dictatorship, he would have found a fall guy and executed him. But what is most important is that the person responsible for not building the hospital either knew damn well that Putin didn't care enough ever to punish him for his failure, or he knew that Putin was simply not capable of doing anything to him.

This is far from being an isolated case. For example, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked Putin to allocate 30 million rubles to finish the publication of a biographical dictionary of Russian writers, the president himself wrote "Allocate" in his directive. What happened after that? The promised money disappeared without a trace.

Don't misunderstand me -- I am categorically opposed to the president signing off allocation requests that are presented to him directly by various citizens and interest groups. Besides that, how is Putin supposed to come up with 30 million rubles to publish a dictionary, or an even larger sum to build a hospital, out of thin air?

But there is another issue here: Why is it so easy for subordinates simply to ignore instructions? If those in power cannot enforce their decisions, they have no power at all.

Another essential component of authority is the power of arrest. General Alexander Bulbov, a senior officer with the Federal Drug Control Service, was arrested in October as part of a bitter turf war with a competing siloviki group. Why was he arrested? To avenge Bulbov's eavesdropping campaign against this rival group, even though Putin ordered the surveillance. The question then is: Who is running this country?

You might cite the Duma's total obedience to Putin to prove that the president is in full command. But a subservient Duma is only a secondary indication of authority; the primary characteristic is when subordinates fulfill their superiors' instructions. The Duma doesn't fulfill Putin's commands as much as it just licks his boots.

To be sure, Putin did have power as president, and there were two main components to that authority. First, Putin was able to appoint whomever he wanted to whichever office he chose. But this authority will be transferred to Medvedev. The second component is money. It is hard to say if political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky's $40 billion estimate of Putin's net worth is accurate, but we can say one thing with certainty: In recent years, the only commands issued by Putin that officials have fulfilled unconditionally were those concerning the redistribution of state property to his close friends and associates. The problem will come when Putin leaves office in May and discovers that he and his friends have radically differing ideas about who actually owns that property.

All things considered, it won't be difficult for Medvedev to take power away from Putin in those areas he controlled. But the real question is whether Medvedev will be able to have power over the system itself and over the other forces within the government?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.