Cracks in Putin's Vertical Power Fortress

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Four weeks have passed since Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as president and since his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, was approved as prime minister.

  Naturally, we didn't see any revolutions during this month. Medvedev, after all, has been a loyal member of Putin's team for the last 16 years. And even if Medvedev has his own views about Russia's foreign and domestic policy priorities (which he has voiced in several addresses, including the first words of his inaugural speech when he spoke of the importance of civil rights and freedoms), the new president needs, at minimum, some time to establish his authority. It took time for Putin to free himself from members of Yeltsin's retinue, such as former Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. He needed almost his entire first term to accomplish this, even though Yeltsin withdrew from public life after he left office, refraining from making political statements or giving many interviews.

Unlike Yeltsin, Putin is extremely active and very much in the public eye. He appears on television at least as frequently as Medvedev. Putin's interview in Paris with Le Monde was particularly noteworthy. First, the visiting prime minister was received with all the pomp and ceremony usually reserved for a visiting president. Second, Putin went out of his way to emphasize that Medvedev was the main political figure in Russia. But at the same time, he made it clear that he had no intention of standing on the sidelines -- including in matters of foreign policy, even though technically this is the prerogative of the president, according to the Constitution.

It is interesting to note that, immediately after the Le Monde interview, Putin recalled Yury Ushakov, one of the country's most experienced diplomats and ambassador to the United States, and appointed him deputy head of the government for foreign relations. Moreover, Putin offered another revealing comment in the interview about the distribution power between the president and prime minister: "If everything works out well and if our activities are successful, then it is actually not very important how authority is structured at the highest echelons of government."

On one hand, Putin is sending a signal that everything remains as it was before, when he was the president. On the other hand, the country has received other signals as well -- ones that may indicate some changes under the Putin-Medvedev tandem.

One such signal has been the manner in which top siloviki officials were repositioned in the new White House and presidential administration. The most odious figures were shifted horizontally to new posts that will no longer allow them to influence the most important political decisions as they did during Putin's two presidential terms. These include former Federal Security Services director Nikolai Patrushev (now secretary of the Security Council); former Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov (now the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District); former Kremlin personnel chief Viktor Ivanov (now chief of the Federal Drug Control Service); and former Kremlin deputy head of the presidential administration Igor Sechin (now deputy prime minister).

Another signal was Medvedev's letter sent Tuesday to State Duma deputies in which he suggested removing from consideration a bill that would make it easier to shut down media organizations.

Another signal was the Constitutional Court decision on May 27 dismissing a ridiculous lawsuit against prominent media figure Manana Aslamazyan, who had been charged with smuggling currency. This case had an obvious political motive to it. Aslamazyan was the head of the successor of Internews Russia, which received funding from foreign grants, as well as from Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia charitable fund, and supported independent regional television companies.

There was one more important event that signals a change. This concerns the libel lawsuit against popular television and radio journalist Vladimir Solovyov. The legal action was brought by Valery Boyev, who was an adviser on personnel appointments in the former Putin administration. In one of his radio programs, Solovyov claimed that Boyev applied pressure on the Supreme Arbitration Court to influence its decisions. In particular, Solovyov said there were "no independent courts in Russia," and he claimed that there were "courts dependent on Boyev." Then, Yelena Valyavina, first deputy chairwoman of the Supreme Arbitration Court, unexpectedly said Boyev had threatened to derail her career in 2005 if she did not reverse a ruling handed down against the Federal Property Fund. But as soon as Solovyov's lawyers called the chairmen of three other arbitration courts to testify in the libel case, Boyev dropped his charges.

It is unprecedented in Russia that a figure as highly ranked as Valyavina would publicly confirm that a top official in the president's administration had tried to pressure the Supreme Arbitration Court. Another important fact in this case is that the head of the Supreme Arbitration Court is Anton Ivanov, a former university classmate and close friend of Medvedev. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that Medvedev approved of Valyavina's testimony against Boyev's alleged attempt to influence the court.

Moreover, as these events were unfolding, Medvedev openly acknowledged during a Kremlin meeting on judicial reform that many court decisions are made under pressure from powerful bureaucrats and that officials lobby judges -- sometimes in exchange for money. Medvedev called for an end to this corruption and abuse of a power in the judicial system.

What makes these events so important? Up until now, the Kremlin's ability to control the courts was one of the more important tools used to construct Putin's power vertical. Every bureaucrat, governor, powerful businessman, Duma deputy or senator knew very well that if he did not follow the Kremlin line, he could be faced with trumped-up charges, arrested and sent to jail for a year or two awaiting trial. In the best-case scenario, he might get off with a suspended sentence. In the worst-case situation, he could be shipped off to a prison in Siberia for eight years, like Khodorkovsky, and no lawyer -- even the most talented -- would be able to save him from punishment.

Thus, we see an interesting paradox. If Medvedev's pet project -- an independent judiciary -- were ever to be realized, he would effectively destroy the foundation of Putin's power vertical, which he worked so hard constructing over the past eight years. Does the young president understand the implications of his bold program? Does he realize that he may be biting off more than he can chew?

Perhaps Medvedev is simply taking a page from Putin's book, however. After all, in his first term Putin also spoke nobly about the need for the rule of law (albeit with a Russian twist, introducing his "dictatorship of the law" model). But in the end, far from creating an independent legal system, Putin created a judiciary that applied the law selectively to eliminate his political opponents.

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