On Dec. 31, 1999, the ailing President of Russia Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned and transferred the supreme power in the country to his young and energetic prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Putin went on to win the presidential election on March 26, 2000.
A few weeks ago, a rumor began circulating in Moscow that the “1999 scenario” was about to be repeated. The rumor held that by the end of last year, President Dmitry Medvedev would have resigned and appointed his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting president. Putin would then have used his consolidated authority to win the presidency in the first round of the vote on March 4.
This hasn’t happened. On Dec. 31 both leaders addressed the nation with traditional New Year greetings that carried no surprises. It therefore looks almost certain that Medvedev will remain President of Russia for the next four months.
It would also appear that the major intra-tandem agreement announced last September – Putin wins the presidency and appoints Medvedev his prime minister – still remains in force. The recent appointment of Vladislav Surkov as vice premier responsible for innovation and modernization (including the Skolkovo project) wouldn’t make any sense without Medvedev in the White House.
And yet, it’s hard to believe that nothing has changed at all within the Putin-Medvedev duo. Take, for instance, the reaction of the two at the public protests that erupted following the Dec. 4 Duma elections. While Putin still appears unable to control his anger at the protesters, Medvedev’s response has been more nuanced. Despite calling the protest movement “foam” at the beginning of his annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly, he later sounded almost conciliatory: “I hear those who speak for the need of changes, and I understand them.” Moreover, in his address, Medvedev proposed a number of reforms aimed at liberalization of Russia’s political system, including a set of new rules on political party registration.
The very scope of Medvedev’s proposals implies that they were prepared well in advance of the address. But having failed to explain why he had waited until he was a lame-duck president to announce these proposals, Medvedev implicitly admitted that he wasn’t allowed to do so by Putin and the conservative faction of Russian political elites. Consequently, Medvedev’s address was in essence an attempt to preserve the remnants of his reputation of being a political liberal; an act committed despite the wishes – and, perhaps, even without getting the prior approval – of Putin. The latter point was also made by the ultimate Kremlin insider, Gleb Pavlovsky, who suggested that Medvedev’s recent moves were not “coordinated” with the prime minister.
Obviously, Medvedev recognizes that he has very little room for maneuver. The appointment of two ultimate Putin loyalists, Sergei Ivanov and Vyacheslav Volodin, as the chief and deputy-chief of the presidential administration makes it virtually certain that Medvedev’s promises of political reforms were the last bold move of his presidency. Besides, even pushing the reformist legislation through the new Duma, as Medvedev is planning, won’t be easy. The Duma might not be a place for discussions; but it isn’t a place for collective hara-kiri, either. Neither the majority represented by the United Russia party, nor the opposition still high on its suddenly increased clout, expressed any interest in promoting legislations that would increase the level of political competition in the country.
In addition to the short-term concerns, Medvedev still faces a fundamental long-term problem. If the events of the past year taught Medvedev anything, this was the lesson of the importance of having a solid political base of his own. And here, Medvedev’s relations with the United Russia party become essential. As part of his agreements with Putin, Medvedev led the party list in the Duma elections, and the original plan had Medvedev replacing Putin as the party’s chairman after the end of his presidency in May.
There is every reason to suspect that so far, the Medvedev-United Russia one-night-stand hasn’t developed into a stable relationship. There was no love between the two in the first place, as Medvedev often criticized the edinorosses, and the latter naturally gravitated to Putin as a “national leader” with higher approval ratings. The December Duma elections where United Russia, despite being “helped,” suffered significant losses obviously haven’t made mutual feelings warmer. The edinorosses are still in a state of shock at what they consider Putin’s cheating on them with the All-Russian Popular Front. Yet, they want to believe that having used the Front for the purpose of winning the presidential election, Putin will return in the “family.” They are therefore hesitant to commit themselves to a new relationship, especially with a second-choice suitor.
This may leave Medvedev with the only rational course of action: to create his own, brand-new political party. Wasn’t it what he had in mind when he proposed a speedy procedure for the political party registration?
In any case, Medvedev has a lot of important decisions to make in the last four months of his presidency. Some of them will ultimately determine whether this presidency will be his last or he’ll have a chance for an encore.