Empower Medvedev

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With Vladimir Putin's expected confirmation as prime minister on Thursday, both he and President Dmitry Medvedev, inaugurated Wednesday, will have new jobs.

There is some doubt whether this will actually change the balance of power. But for the sake of the country's political development, Medvedev will have to become president in more than just name.

Medvedev's election has generated some serious expectations. Investors -- both foreign and domestic -- are looking to him to foster stronger rule of law in the commercial sphere. Medvedev's promise to do so during his inauguration speech was reassuring.

Civil society groups, meanwhile, hope the new president will follow up on calls to give them a greater voice in monitoring government policy and performance. Foreign governments are hoping for some softening in Kremlin rhetoric.

For the most part, Medvedev's primary constituency -- the electorate -- has made it fairly clear that what it wants is a continuation of the government's recent policies. Given the country's strong, albeit heavily hydrocarbon-fueled, economic performance of the past eight years and memories of the topsy-turvy 1990s, this is understandable. People want stability and prosperity.

If Putin remains the one calling the shots in the country, this will reduce the chances for long-term stability, as counterintuitive as it may seem.

The overwhelming majority of the world's stable and effective political systems generate stability through rules, frameworks and practices that help guarantee that they function normally. Put simply, they depend on institutions, not on individuals.

Russia's history demonstrates the danger inherent in systems that depend on personal conceptions of power. Events arising at least partly from this approach to governance include the Time of Troubles, Catherine the Great's accession to the throne, the Decembrist revolt, Stalin's deadly machinations to achieve power, the Brezhnev era of stagnation and the attempted putsch against Gorbachev.

In most of these cases, the leader who ended up in power achieved some measure of success, and there isn't any reason to believe that Putin won't be able to do so as well. The problem is that the personal power accumulated by each leader only contributed to the return of instability once he or she left the stage. There is no reason to believe that life post-Putin would be any different.

Russia's Constitution is often referred to as "superpresidential," with the head of state holding the overwhelming balance of power and responsibility. As the basic rules of the game, the Constitution should serve as the basis for political stability. If, instead, real power remains in Putin's hands, future stability will depend on Putin alone. A century of stability, it follows, would require Putin to stay in power for another 100 years.

He can't.