Lilia Shevtsova: Power Scenarios in Russia

A few days ago Lilia Shevtsova published the following column in the Moscow Times:

The Power Paralysis By Lilia Shevtsova Those watching President Vladimir Putin on television could not fail to see a change in his mood. After he decided on his partnership with First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, he started to look like a different person. He is very much at ease — as if a huge burden has been taken off his back. Last week, he was joking at the State Council meeting, and he curtly put the Time magazine journalists in their place during an interview at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence. His body language shows that he is enjoying his position of power immensely.

Putin has good reason to be satisfied. He has solved the most important conundrum of how to leave office and stay in power at the same time: by staying on as the prime minister. Ironically, the survival and continuity of the current Kremlin leadership could undermine the system it created. Trying to retain the status quo, it has become trapped in what British historian Arnold Toynbee defined as “suicidal statecraft.”There are three possible scenarios. Scenario No. 1: Putin acts as Medvedev’s guardian by saving him from the warring clans. After Medvedev wins the election, Putin rejects his offer to become prime minister. In this case, the inevitable happens: Medvedev will be forced to follow the traditional pattern of succession, according to which a new president rejects the previous political regime, which is exactly what Putin did vis-a-vis BorisYeltsin. This would mean that Medvedev would have to build his own basis of support, and he would also have to reject the symbols of Putinism, including its architect. Medvedev may run out of oil luck and will face the problems that Putin and his ministers put on the back burner — an undiversified economy, social disparities, demographic drama, a spillover of instability from the North Caucasus, corruption and a rising tide of nationalism. The new president will be forced to reject the Putin status quo and either start reforms or consolidate his rule by making his predecessor a scapegoat.Scenario No. 2, which is the most plausible: A Medvedev-Putin tandem will be created as a junior-senior partnership. Even if Putin, as prime minister, has to do the dreary, thankless work of overseeing road and housing projects as well as answering for people’s salaries, he will still be viewed as the center of power. If the Kremlin shifts the center of gravity to the prime minister role, it would undermine the presidency, which is the only viable institution in Russia. In the end, this leaves both society and the political class baffled about whom to obey. It also provokes sharp and bitter divisions among the elite and infighting between the president and prime minister. This would ultimately lead to a paralysis of power.The Kremlin propagandists argue that Putin will start to transfer his power to Medvedev as soon as the young protege matures. But why on earth would Putin want to do this? Those who solidify their grip on power never let it go. How will Medvedev be able to mature as president when his senior partner is the person running the show? No one has a clue about how the diarchy will function. We may assume that Putin’s people will be in place, but the subordination mechanism that he instituted will be fundamentally disrupted. Moreover, the Russia’s political system is built around its leader, and Putin intends to play the role of the national leader when he leaves the Kremlin. This would contradict tradition and the Constitution. This attempt to secure Putin’s continuity may lead to instability, crisis or even a coup d’etat.Scenario No. 3: Putin and Medvedev work as a united team and succeed in retaining the status quo based on high oil prices, lack of alternatives and persistent comparisons to the terrible chaos of the Yeltsin period. But Putin, in the role of the prime minister, will undermine stability if he continues to do what he has started to do in December — make populist promises and raise salaries. The government has shown throughout 2007 that it is incapable of controlling the country’s high inflation rate, and if Putin makes a bad situation even worse by raising salaries and other government spending, inflation could easily spin out of control. Moreover, in order to ensure continuity, the huge state-controlled corporations — Gazprom, Rosneft, Rosobonexport and Rosatom — would have to be strengthened even further in an effort to beef up the Kremlin’s power base. But in the end, this could actually weaken and decentralize the government by shifting the center of power to the business groups who control these behemoths. And this raises the question: Will Putin and Medvedev be presiding over nothing more than a shell?The moment of truth for Russia will come at the end of the current political cycle — when Putin has to leave the Kremlin. Today, the political elite are not ready to follow the Belarussian or Kazakh examples by rejecting the principle of leadership rotation. But at the same time, the elite do not want to leave the scene because they fear that their assets will be redistributed. So far they have been reasonably successful in creating the illusion that there will be a genuine transfer of power in accordance with the Constitution. At the same time, the Kremlin elite believe that they can preserve power behind the scenes by simply changing hats. Today, Medvedev puts on the hat of the president, but soon it will be Putin again.But the hope that this shell game will guarantee stability could fail miserably. By rejecting political alternatives, the Kremlin is fooling itself into believing that it can extinguish the opposition. It may be able to silence dissent for a certain time by stuffing it into a bottle, but the people’s dissatisfaction will only intensify to the point where it could easily boil over and explode. Thus, in the quest for stability, the Kremlin is creating a situation where stability is less certain than ever before.In this way, the Russian elite may be planting the seeds of their own destruction.Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.