The Day of the Bear

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President Dmitry Medvedev has a very Russian surname, one derived from one of the more prominent symbols of Russia -- the medved, or bear. Bears have served as the heroes of fairy tales, fables, proverbs and anecdotes, and they are depicted on the coat of arms of many Russian cities. A bear named Misha was the official mascot of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and a bear is now the symbol of United Russia, which controls an absolute majority of seats in the State Duma. The bear is a symbol of power and authority with practically no rival in the animal kingdom.

In contrast, however, the other medved -- our new president -- is still weak, and it is not clear when, if ever, he will possess real presidential authority. The reasons for this are clear. First, Medvedev suffers from a critical lack of legitimacy. Everyone understands that Vladimir Putin effectively appointed him, that he came to office through unfair elections devoid of any real competition, and that his victory was ensured from the outset with the help of the mass media parroting the Kremlin line. Since the elections were a sham, Medvedev cannot be viewed or accepted as the genuine tsar.

Second, Medvedev's legitimacy will be undermined even more when Putin, who remains more popular, takes over as prime minister. Nobody knows or understands how the new two-headed authority structure will work.

There are two opposing, radical points of view on this issue. On one hand, liberal opponents of the administration cast Medvedev as a puppet, completely dependent on Putin. Medvedev lacks his own base of support, and he was placed temporarily on the presidential throne on the condition that he vacate it the moment Putin demands -- perhaps before his term is finished. On the other hand, Kremlin liberals devoutly preach that Putin is sincerely proud of his chosen successor and believes that the country will have a young, progressive and educated leader. According to this theory, Putin is so eager to help Medvedev that he would not mind playing second fiddle to ensure Medvedev's success.

The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. Both Putin and Medvedev have repeatedly declared that they have no plans to redistribute authority between the president and the prime minister, especially at the expense of presidential authority. But it is probably not wise to put too much faith in these statements. After all, Putin has made many promises that he later broke. For example, he once spoke out publicly against bankrupting Yukos, eliminating elections for governors and joining United Russia. Most interesting of all, he also flatly denied any plans to become prime minister.

One element of Putin's trademark style is to put off making major decisions until the last minute. When he does decide something, it is usually done impulsively and then he often changes his mind. For example, it seems that Putin named Viktor Zubkov as prime minister as part of a plan that he later scrapped. Putin probably did not want to become prime minister under a Medvedev presidency and planned to delegate this role to the tried and true Zubkov. But at the last minute, Putin gazed into the future and, dismayed by the thought of being out of power for the next four years, picked the option of becoming prime minister.

On one hand, there is no basis for doubting that Putin and Medvedev really have a close, trusting relationship. They might actually be able to work out all of the most delicate questions, such as how to avoid conflict in the decision-making process, whom to name to various posts, who should be fired, how to provide guarantees of legal impunity and personal security, and so on.

On the other hand, it is not clear how the two centers of power will be able to avoid heated competition and potential conflict when one side attempts to outsmart the other and gain the upper hand. Any parent knows this well. For example, when you are unaware that your wife has already forbidden your son to go to the movies and he comes to you asking for permission. If a minister, governor or CEO cannot get the necessary green light from Putin on one of their key projects, they will inevitably run to Medvedev in hopes of getting approval.

Nonetheless, a law will probably be passed freeing Putin from having to deal with routine tasks as prime minister, but did anybody seriously believe that Putin would be handling dull issues like improving roads or the rotting plumbing system in the country's dilapidated apartment buildings?

It seems that all of the speculation about Putin's White House becoming more powerful than Medvedev's Kremlin is nothing more than the wishful thinking of the ruling elite who have a vested interest in maintaining Putin's hold on power. Many of Putin's supporters and beneficiaries hoped that he would send a strong signal during his speech at Wednesday's inauguration that the real power would remain with him, even as Medvedev was about to take the oath of office. But, in reality, Putin appeared subdued -- perhaps even dismayed -- during the ceremony. This leads me to believe that Putin has accepted, albeit grudgingly, the transfer of power to Medvedev. The basic distribution of power between the president and the prime minister will remain unchanged. The president is still the commander in chief, and he still appoints the defense, interior and foreign ministers. He also appoints top leaders of the Federal Security Service and, last but not least, he can fire the prime minister.

Moreover, the president determines Russia's foreign policy. When the West recognizes Medvedev as Russia's top leader in July at the Group of Eight summit in Japan, this will certainly boost his legitimacy. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev used a similar tactic in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he took personal control over all negotiations with the leaders of the United States, France, West Germany and others. Using this as leverage, he soon managed to dominate other, more influential Soviet leaders.

What is most important today is that the Constitution provides the president with a great amount of power. This authority is further strengthened by the traditional belief among people that the Kremlin, which controls the armed forces and massive security infrastructure, has historically always been the sole and supreme center of authority in the country.

It is true, however, that the president must do more than simply occupy the top spot in the Kremlin. He has to be strong and tough enough to maintain the power that comes with the position. Only time will tell if Medvedev is able to do this.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.