July 21, 2009

Most of us in the West have presumed that Vladimir Putin is still running Russia, despite having stepped down as president and moving to the constitutionally-less-powerful premiership.  Apparently, most Russians think so, too.

 

CSM's Fred Weir reports that,

Amid the worst economic bad news in over a decade, the question of just how Russia is being led – and where – has become the subject of heated debate among the country's political class.  Some experts say it's a stage-managed Kremlin theater production, a "good cop, bad cop" act designed to keep the opposition off-guard and the public guessing.  Others suggest that President Medvedev, a savvy lawyer fond of Led Zeppelin, may be breaking away from the tutelage of his predecessor and challenging the harsher aspects of the Putin era.

A May poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 19 percent of Russians believe that Medvedev "pursues an independent policy," while 68 percent think he acts entirely "under the control of Putin and [his] entourage." That street wisdom reflects the past thousand years of Russian history, in which the country has always been ruled by a single strong leader. Rare moments of divided authority have usually been times of threatened civil war, most recently in 1993 when gridlock between President Boris Yeltsin and his elected parliament culminated in gunfire and the subsequent restoration of near-total Kremlin power. Hence the widespread skepticism last year when Medvedev was vaulted into the Kremlin in a controlled election and Putin moved offices but kept the spotlight he had previously enjoyed.

Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, the prime minister is an appointed technocrat who serves at the president's pleasure. In the past, most have toiled in the Kremlin's shadow. But Putin's daily activities have been covered by Russian state TV as fully as Medvedev's. At times of emergency – such as the recent war with neighboring Georgia – Putin has taken center stage.

Both men have repeatedly insisted that their "tandem" is working well. So far, events have borne out that claim.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia's top experts on its political elite, says that if one ignores the terms of Russia's Constitution and looks at who actually holds the levers of power, the apparently peaceful relationship makes sense. "Medvedev has no resources and no team to lead; 85 percent of all key posts are held by Putin's people. Medvedev's a general with no army," she says. "The plenary powers of the leaders have been distributed without any reference to the Constitution. Medvedev might chair sessions of the Security Council, but Putin actually controls the siloviki," meaning the military and security services.

Weir notes that Medvedev has taken some steps in recent months to carve out an independent position but most observers are skeptical.

"Putin still believes that he is the No. 1 person in the country, but the problem is that Medvedev is beginning to think much the same of himself," Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group think tank in Moscow, told Ekho Moskvi radio recently. "Putin is more and more obviously taking up a tough, authoritarian position, as if he knows he is being pushed from power and is showing that he will mount fierce resistance."

Since the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsars, the convergence of real political power with the institutional niceties of the extant constitution has been purely coincidental.  Under the Soviet system, it didn't much matter who was president, premier, or general secretary; eventually, the strongest leaders accumulated all three titles.    In the post-Soviet period, the president has traditionally been the dominant figure — the constitutional structure is loosely based on the French system — but relative power of the executive and the legislature has had more to do with the audacity and popularity of the former than anything written on paper.

Theoretically, Medvedev can fire Putin.  Given that no one truly believes he could do so, it's rather clear Putin is in fact in charge.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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