Putin's Mixed Signals Sidelining Medvedev

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Many in the West believe that Vladimir Putin has become a dictator and has found in Dmitry Medvedev a convenient seat holder while he himself will rule as prime minister once he steps down. I do not think this is Putin's intention. But appearances matter, and they might be misleading. Indeed, some of Putin's recent actions could be viewed as proof of his desire to remain not only influential but dominant after he formally transfers power to Medvedev on May 7.

Apart from turning both the State Duma and the presidential elections into a referendum on Putin's Plan, Putin has acted and spoken publicly in ways that have reinforced the impression that he intends to remain the country's ultimate decision maker.

At a news conference in February, Putin outlined a much more sweeping portfolio for the prime minister than for the president, and he hinted at his intention to serve as prime minister as long as Medvedev is president, ignoring the constitutional provision that the prime minister serves at the pleasure of the president.

Putin's latest spurt of activity in foreign policy -- attending the NATO summit in Bucharest and inviting U.S. President George W. Bush to Sochi -- also creates the impression that Medvedev is being consulted and informed but some key foreign policy decisions are not being entrusted to him as they should be.

The feeling of Putin's continued dominance was only reinforced by last week's decision to rush his confirmation as prime minister through the Duma on May 8, a day the Duma was not even planning to meet.

But is it really Putin's intention to perpetuate his dominance?

Tom Graham, a former top Russia adviser to Bush and now a senior director for Kissinger & Associates, argues otherwise. In a speech last week at Johns Hopkins University, Graham said Russia's future was open and pointed to Putin and Medvedev's publicly stated goal of building "a stable form of dual power in Russia, with both a strong president and a strong prime minister, each with a more or less defined sphere of competence, each as a kind of a check on the power of the other."

"Were it to succeed," Graham said, "it would mark a watershed in Russian political tradition, and it would pave the way for a more open, pluralistic system, one that could eventually produce a more transparent and less restrictive, but not destabilizing, competition for power. It might serve to depersonalize and institutionalize power in Russia and thereby create a genuinely new configuration of power."

We will be able to better judge that when we see Medvedev's first appointments on May 7.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and public relations company.