Medvedev-Putin Duo Bucks a Trend

MTCommunists and supporters putting flowers on Josef Stalin's grave at the Kremlin wall on Wednesday to commemorate the 55th anniversary of his death.
Dmitry Medvedev won the presidential election last weekend on a promise that he would govern hand in hand with Vladimir Putin in the interest of stability.

If the Medvedev-Putin duo succeeds, it will buck the trend in Russian history in which power-sharing deals have often led to intrigue and conflict.

One such period of collective leadership began 55 years ago Wednesday, when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died of a stroke after nearly three decades of undisputed rule.

Several top officials stepped into the ensuing power vacuum, including the dreaded security chief, Lavrenty Beria, who gained the title of deputy prime minister, and Nikita Khrushchev, who became the top Communist Party official.

Their working relationship came to a dramatic end in June 1953 when Khrushchev called troops into a meeting of the Party leadership and had Beria arrested. Six months later, Beria was executed.

Nobody expects the Putin-Medvedev partnership to end as poorly.

But their arrangement contains the seeds of instability because of the sweeping powers the president holds under the Constitution, reinforced by the country's long tradition of one-man rule, according to analysts interviewed for this report.

"Putin's plan of the president plus the prime minister is wishful thinking," said Alexei Sidorenko, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Sidorenko predicted that Medvedev would work seamlessly with Putin for two or three years, in the same way that Putin retained many key officials and policies from the Yeltsin administration at the beginning of his own presidency.

But once Medvedev gets comfortable with the powers he enjoys in the post, he might turn on Putin if influential interest groups can persuade him to do so, Sidorenko said.

"The question here revolves around his personal integrity," Sidorenko said. "Will he honor his private agreements with Putin? After all, he will have the authority simply to fire the prime minister."

Perhaps that is why Medvedev and Putin repeatedly stressed their friendship in the run-up to last Sunday's election.

They have also promised to divide power according to Russia's 1993 Constitution, using language that has sometimes sounded like a civics lesson.

"The president has his powers; the prime minister has his," Medvedev said at a news conference Monday. "These powers come from the Constitution and current legislation, and nobody is planning to change this."

Last month, Putin said the Constitution gave significant powers to the prime minister, which was perceived as a sign that he planned to play a strong role under a Medvedev presidency.

"The president is the guarantor of the Constitution and sets the main directions of domestic and foreign policy," Putin said. "But the highest executive authority in the country is the government, which is led by the prime minister."

The Constitution gives the president broad authority over foreign, defense and security policy, while putting the prime minister in charge of day-to-day implementation, especially on economic and social policy.

The president serves as commander in chief of the armed forces and head of the Security Council, which oversees defense and security policies.

That is why the so-called power ministries and intelligence agencies report directly to the president, said Oleg Rumyantsev, one of the authors of the Constitution. These include the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Federal Security Service, the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Emergency Situations Ministry.

The Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry also report directly to the president.

While the Constitution, ushered in by Boris Yeltsin in 1993, is often described as "superpresidential," giving the head of state much more power than the prime minister, it clearly delineates the powers of the two positions, Rumyantsev said.

"We did everything possible to prevent collisions between the president and the prime minister," he recalled in a telephone interview.

In practice, though, the effectiveness of the Putin-Medvedev power-sharing deal will depend on their personal agreements and on informal powers that have never been written into law, Rumyantsev said.

"We have a written constitution and an unwritten constitution," he said. "What we are seeing now is the formation of a new entity called the 'national leader,' which is not written into the Constitution."

Furthermore, the president has been granted some powers not spelled out in the Constitution as a result of other laws.

Perhaps the most notable of these is the ability to appoint governors, a prerogative Putin gained in 2004. After the Beslan hostage crisis, Putin said he needed to appoint governors in order to combat terrorism, and a bill granting him that power sailed easily through the United Russia-dominated State Duma.

The president also exercises a great deal of informal power through the presidential administration, an entity that has grown in size and influence during the Putin years and now wields more influence than the government, overseen by the prime minister.

This could be a recipe for friction.

"One of the main potential problems is competition between their two administrations," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

State Duma Deputy Sergei Markov, a member of United Russia, conceded that turf wars could erupt, but downplayed the likelihood of such conflicts.

"There is, without a doubt, the risk of instability," Markov said. "But Putin and Medvedev understand this perfectly, and they are doing everything possible to minimize it."

One area where Putin may have strong behind-the-scenes influence is foreign policy, which was not part of Medvedev's portfolio as first deputy prime minister.

"Medvedev, as president, will exercise his authority on matters of foreign policy," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. "But in terms of influence over foreign policy, Putin's opinion will matter, of course, simply because he is a very major political figure and one of the most visible and influential politicians on the world stage."

The general trend will be away from Putin's one-man show and toward a more collective style of leadership, said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy who now hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy.

Power will "be more distributed and more collective," Ryzhkov said in a telephone interview. "For the last few years, it has been very personified."

Ryzhkov said the elite were unlikely to split into feuding Putin and Medvedev camps, but other opposition politicians have predicted conflict.

"The tradition in our country is that whoever sits in the Kremlin is the one who rules," said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces party and a former deputy prime minister, Bloomberg reported. "Conflict is inevitable, and Medvedev will win."

In any case, ordinary people are unlikely to know which faction has won until the fight is over, said Ronald Grigor Suny, a history professor at the University of Michigan who has written numerous books about 20th-century Russia.

In that sense, the murkiness of the current transition period has echoes of 1953, Suny said by telephone from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"All of this is going on behind the scenes, and it's almost like Soviet times, when politics were inside the Kremlin," he said. "It's not very easy to discern what's actually going on.