A Shift in Authority

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In December, when it became clear that President Vladimir Putin planned to transfer his office to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and then himself move to the post of prime minister, the plan immediately raised some serious doubts.

First of all, there is no clear precedent for a functioning dyarchy in Russian history and, second, Putin designed his own system of governance to be run with one person at the helm, not two. Political observers are divided on what this all means: Some see the arrangement as a thinly veiled attempt on Putin's part to continue functioning as president even though he will nominally be prime minister. Others think that Putin's plan is, indeed, to relinquish power, albeit over an extended period.

That Putin really does plan to ease himself out of power can't be ruled out.

It seems, however, that the transfer of authority is occurring quickly, rather than slowly. Whether or not Putin really wants to step down, the first few months of this year have demonstrated that our political system sometimes has a dynamic all its own -- one that is not always conducive to being controlled manually. Although analysts and those in the media are still trying to figure out whose portrait will end up handing in government offices across the country, mid- and lower-level bureaucrats already appear to be adjusting their mindset to one where Medvedev is boss.

This is not because he has won the hearts of the business community by promising to reduce the level of government bureaucracy and eradicate corruption, or curried the favor of the liberal opposition by praising the idea of freedom over that of Kremlin control. It is not even because Medvedev has managed to convince a few key political players that he has a realistic chance of seizing power.

In all probability, it is simply because the country's enormous bureaucracy realizes that stability is not necessarily a function of Putin's ability to preserve his personal authority: The reorganization of the entire political system for the sake of one person is fraught with far greater risk than setting up a smooth transition from one leader to another.

Russia's political elites continue to discuss the scenario in which Putin continues to play the central role in the affairs of the country. Nonetheless, their words convey the same sense of bidding farewell to Putin that can be found in the official farewell statements offered by world leaders.

The Russian people have also expressed their attitude toward Kremlin events pretty plainly. The ease with which Putin was able simply to pass his high approval ratings along to Medvedev tells us less about apathy among the electorate than it does about the real nature of Putin's popularity.

These votes Medvedev received in the March presidential election were cast in favor of good economic times. Whichever politician happens to personify that prosperity is a relatively minor point.

Putin, of course, has not stepped down yet, but even if he is named to lead United Russia on Tuesday -- with or without actually joining the party -- this wouldn't necessarily mean that he had managed to guarantee his control over the government. The party has nothing to offer Putin in his struggle for power.

In reality, United Russia's 300-plus State Duma deputies are ready to give their allegiances not to the party leadership or to Putin personally, but to whomever they believe will be the country's next leader. If they are convinced that Dmitry Medvedev has ultimately taken hold of central authority, then he will be the one who is able to control the Duma.

In cases like this, nobody wants to be the last one on board. As a result, any change in real authority could end up occurring rather quickly.

Konstantin Sonin is a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR.