David Satter: Sidekick in Chief

David Satter has a great opinion column in the Wall Street Journal today: “Sharing power with another leader is not in Russia’s tradition, however, and given the conditions that exist in the country today, the lack of clear lines of authority could be a recipe for disaster.

Sidekick-in-ChiefBy DAVID SATTERTHE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIADecember 13, 2007MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to endless speculation Monday and tapped Dmitry Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, to succeed him. A day later Mr. Medvedev, in turn, suggested that the incumbent should become prime minister after leaving the presidency. The sequence of events appears to be carefully prepared. The crisis developing in Russia’s corridors of power, however, is likely only to get worse.[Satter]The choice of Mr. Medvedev was hailed in some circles. He has supported an open economy and stood up for the rights of investors, even trying to defend oil company Yukos against a Kremlin-directed expropriation. At the Davos Word Economic Forum meeting in 2005, he impressed Western participants as mild mannered, a competent technocrat and a liberal.Mr. Medvedev is a close personal friend of Mr. Putin’s and is said to be treated by the president like an “adopted son.” But there have always been doubts about his authority, even when, as chairman of the board of Gazprom, he had a considerable share of the Russian economy under his formal control. Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute of Globalization, says Mr. Medvedev “is not capable of running anything, even his own secretariat.” He adds that President Putin chose the most reliable way to stay in power — “the complete incompetence of his successor.”The problem facing Russia, however, is not a matter of personalities. Rather it stems from the dangers inherent in President Putin’s desire to hold on to power. The Kremlin leader is trying to do this under conditions in which his own policies have stripped Russia of mediating institutions and left the country essentially lawless.Earlier this month, Russian voters voted in a State Duma in which the Putin-backed United Russia party will enjoy an overwhelming majority, winning 64% of the vote. Most estimates are that the Putin-supported candidate in the presidential elections will get 50-55% of the vote. Since Mr. Putin announced before the Dec. 2 vote that a favorable result would give him the “moral right” to continue to play an active political role, it is virtually certain that the difference in the results will be used to justify the claim that Mr. Putin has more popular legitimacy than the next president. And after this week’s announcements, it’s near certain that once a President Medvedev comes into office, Mr. Putin will take a new job — prime minister, as his dauphin suggested Tuesday, who may simultaneously be the “national leader.” Needless to say, this will make the job of the president more difficult if not impossible.The government is, at the same time, completing an economic program through the year 2020 that should be enacted before the presidential elections and will contain not only a plan for the macroeconomic development of the country but also plans for specific industries and regions. This will limit the new president’s options. Perhaps most important, Mr. Putin will have strong informal ties to the “power ministries,” making it not only difficult but dangerous for an elected president to defy him.* * *As Russia enters the ninth year of the post-Yeltsin era, it faces two serious problems — factional infighting in the leadership and the worsening of the favorable economic conditions that have helped to keep that infighting in bounds. The fight is essentially over bribes, the value of which has increased faster than the price of oil. The most threatening conflicts exist between factions in the security agencies (the so-called siloviky) who are familiar with force and ready to use it.On Oct. 27, the bodies of Konstantin Durzenko, an officer with the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), and Sergei Lomako, a former colleague, were found in a St. Petersburg ditch, the victims of apparent poisoning. The killings came amid a conflict between the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the FSKN that came to public attention after the arrest earlier in October of Gen. Alexander Bulbov, the head of the FSKN’s operational department and several other FSKN officers. Mr. Bulbov was accused of bribery and illegal wiretapping. He and the other arrested officers had been investigating a smuggling operation connected to the Tri Kita (Three Whales) furniture stores. One of the owners of the chain is the father of Yuri Zaostrovtsev, a deputy director of the FSB.On Oct. 9, Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the FSKN, wrote in Kommersant that the arrests were evidence of “infighting among the special services” and warned, “There can be no winners in this war. There is too much at stake.” A former security officer familiar with the circumstances surrounding the arrests said, in an interview with the Moscow Times, “We nearly had a fight between two security agencies. This time, the agents were able to keep their cool, and there was no gunfight. But if this battle continues, you can be sure that they start shooting at each other and it will be difficult to stop.”In another case, Sergei Storchak, the deputy finance minister, was arrested last month and charged with embezzling $43.4 million in a foreign debt deal with Algeria. The case has pitted Alexander Bastrykin — who heads a newly formed Investigative Committee and is believed to be an ally of Igor Sechin, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff — against Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general, who is allegedly part of the rival siloviky clan headed by Mr. Cherkesov, the head of the federal anti-narcotics police. Mr. Storchak, a leading authority on international finance, oversees the government’s $144 billion oil stabilization fund, and the real issue in his arrest is believed to be control of the fund which is scheduled to be used for domestic investment projects in the near future.By destroying democracy, Mr. Putin created a system in which only the person at the top can mediate between warring factions. That person used to be President Putin. The role of mediator will now apparently be played by both Messrs. Putin and Medvedev. Sharing power with another leader is not in Russia’s tradition, however, and given the conditions that exist in the country today, the lack of clear lines of authority could be a recipe for disaster.Mr. Putin is determined to “play a political role” in the future, but Russia has good reason to fear divided power. In 1993, President Boris Yeltsin could not reach agreement on privatization with the Russian legislature. The result was a conflict that eventually led to a pitched battle on the streets of Moscow that cost at least 150 lives and led to the emasculation of the legislative branch of government. The elevation of Mr. Medvedev as a candidate for president ends a period of uncertainty, but the dangers of Mr. Putin’s self-serving schemes may lie ahead.Mr. Satter is affiliated with the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins. The report of a study group that he headed on U.S.-Russian relations is available at www.Hudson.org.