“To every man there comes a time in his lifetime, that special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered that special chance to do a very special thing, unique to him and fitted to his talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified to do the work which could have been his finest hour.”
Now that Russia has its President-elect, it’s time to shift attention to the composition of Vladimir Putin’s new Cabinet, beginning, naturally, with the post of prime-minister.
At first glance, this issue has been settled long time ago: when announcing his decision to run for presidency for the third time — at the congress of the United Russia party on September 24, 2011 — Putin promised this position to the current President Dmitry Medvedev. (“…based on broad popular support, Dmitry Anatolievich will…lead the Government of the Russian Federation to continue his work on modernization.”) And just a few days ago, at a meeting with foreign media, Putin confirmed his original decision: “Mr. Medvedev will be offered the position of prime minister.”
“Offered” is a key word here: according to the Russian Constitution, within two weeks after inauguration, the new president submits the candidacy for prime minister to the Duma; the Duma then has one week to approve or reject the president’s choice.
In ordinary times – with Putin’s approval ratings around 70% and United Russia having the constitutional majority in the Duma — Putin’s nomination and parliamentary approval of a candidate would mean the same thing. But ours are not ordinary times: a pre-election rating bump can’t hide Putin’s significantly reduced public support, and United Russia enjoys only a 26-seat majority in the Duma. Besides, it might be important that within the United Russia parliamentary faction, there is a block of about 60 deputies who ran in the Duma elections on the All-Russia People’s Front list. They got their Duma seats only after Putin’s intervention, after United Russia’s officials tried to distribute their mandates to the party members. These 60 deputies are loyal personally to Putin and are likely to disobey the orders of the leadership of the faction if told so by the president. Relations between United Russia and the Front have been lukewarm at best; the Front’s informal leader, Putin’s election campaign manager, Stanislav Govorukhin repeatedly criticized Medvedev for not campaigning for Putin enough.
If for whatever reason Putin decides to renege on his promise to Medvedev without publicly breaking his word, all he has to do is to send a subtle signal to the Duma. Deputy from three opposition parties will happily vote against Medvedev, and it will take only 30 “rogue” Frontmen to reject Medvedev’s candidacy. (Incidentally, if the Duma rejects presidential nominee(s) three times, president dissolves the Duma and calls for new elections. Putin is unlikely to resort to that, but it’s still worth remembering that he has multiple tools in his toolbox.)
Besides keeping his word, a Putin trademark, having Medvedev as prime minister would present President Putin with a number of benefits. First, with his modernization vocabulary, Medvedev will bring a reformist flavor to the new Cabinet. Second, this move will allow Putin to counterbalance the conservative wing of the elites that has been gaining weight as of late – and simultaneously mollify the “liberals” upset with Medvedev not being allowed to run for the second term. Third, given Medvedev’s positive image around the world and Putin’s own disdain for things international, the president may charge his prime minister with certain foreign policy chores. In this regards, a recent Forbes article speculated – based on unidentified government sources — that responsibilities of future prime minister may be expanded to include representing Russia at world summits, including, possibly, even G8.
On the other hand, selecting Medvedev will come at a cost. Mikhail Dmitriev, the president of the Center of Strategic Development, points out that Medvedev is inefficient manager and is widely disliked by the state bureaucrats. More importantly, argues Dmitriev, Medvedev is lacking any real public support. This would be irrelevant, or even desirable, at the era of “technical” prime ministers like Mikhail Fradkov and Victor Zubkov. But now, with Putin’s own popularity sliding and a cloud of illegitimacy hovering over the Duma, the regime needs someone with a high level of trust among the public and the elites alike – and Medvedev just doesn’t fit the bill.
Another blow to the idea of Medvedev as prime minister came from unexpected source: from Medvedev’s confidant Igor Yurgens. In a recent interview, Yurgens insisted that, given the economic situation in the country, Medvedev’s hopes to pursue his modernization agenda as head of government were unrealistic. Yurgens further suggested and that if Medvedev aspired to advance his political career – including potential presidential run in six years – the Putin administration was a wrong place to be.
So far, Medvedev has shown absolutely no signs of doubts that the plan articulated by the “tandem” almost six months ago will be implemented as stated. In a sense, he has no other option. Medvedev’s point of no return passed sometime last summer, when he could either insist on running for the second term or threaten to leave the “tandem” at all. In all likelihood, Medvedev would have lost this battle to his mentor, but he could at least comfort himself with the notion that in Russia, being a “victim” often promises future political opportunities (remember Yeltsin). Now, it’s too late. Having lost a chance to become a political figure in his own right, Medvedev made himself a hostage of a word, Putin’s word. Or, paraphrasing Churchill, the Fate was tapping Medvedev on the shoulder, but he didn’t notice because he was listening to Putin.