President-elect Vladimir Putin’s decision to transfer the leadership of the United Russia party to his protégé and future Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev doesn’t answer all the questions regarding Russia’s political future. Yet, it does clarify a couple of important short- and mid-term issues.
First, Medvedev isn’t going to be a “technical” prime minister in the sense Putin’s two previous heads of government, Mikhail Fradkov and Viktor Zubkov, were. To be sure, even as Chairman of United Russia, the future Prime Minister Medvedev won’t possess the same level of authority and autonomy that his mentor Putin had enjoyed in 2008-2012. Nevertheless, the combination of the two positions will definitely elevate Medvedev’s status and may help him establish himself as a bona fide second person in the state hierarchy.
Second, some analysts speculated that by offering Medvedev the prime minister position, Putin was simply fulfilling his part of the “swap” deal announced last September; some even predicted that Medvedev’s government wouldn’t last until fall and that Putin was already looking for a replacement. Putin’s decision to charge Medvedev with heading United Russia seems to put an end to this speculation. Of course, as president, Putin can fire his prime minister at any time – and the current Duma will promptly agree. Yet, getting control simultaneously over government, United Russia, and, indirectly, the Duma where United Russia has a working majority provides Medvedev with significant ammunition against his numerous foes among the elites. Far from firing Medvedev within months, the proposed arrangement rather suggests that Putin is willing to keep Medvedev for the whole presidential term. That’s perhaps what Medvedev had in mind when telling in a recent TV interview that the upcoming power configuration is “for a long haul.”
By placing his junior “tandem” partner in charge of government and Russia’s largest political party Putin has done everything at his disposal to let Medvedev become a political figure in his own right. Now, it’s up to Medvedev to prove that he can grow to the occasion.
Getting in order his relationship with United Russia will be important part of this process. In the past, Medvedev criticized the “edinorosses,” in particular, for using excessive administrative resources in the regional elections. Besides, by using liberal lingo during his own presidency, Medvedev was deliberately, if cautiously, positioning himself to the right of the left-of-center United Russia. It was therefore surprising for many to hear Medvedev’s admission – made during a meeting with the United Russia leadership – that he had never been “a liberal” and always adhered to “conservative values.”
There is nothing surprising in Medvedev’s statement. As a true “putinist,” Medvedev has long learned the art of acquiring, dropping or changing ideological “values” for the sake of political expediency. Like Putin, he doesn’t really care about United Russia’s current ideological flavor; like Putin, he considers the party as a commodity, a dispensable tool for stamping executive decisions sent to the Duma. However, given that Medvedev dreams of another presidential term, he needs a political base of his own and will certainly attempt to transform United Russia into a suitable vehicle to presidency. The party chapter – modified in 2008 to accommodate Putin’s becoming United Russia’s leader – gives its chairman essentially unlimited power, especially in the area of personnel decisions. Should the upcoming United Russia congress (scheduled for the end of the month) leave the party chapter unchanged, Medvedev will have all the means to restructure United Russia to his liking.
Putin’s inauguration on May 7 will mark the official conclusion of the “Operation Swap.” On May 8, the “Operation Successor II” will officially begin. With a track record of being a successor to Putin already – and with positions of prime minister and chairman of United Russia under his belt – Medvedev will have all the reasons to consider himself the leading candidate. It’s unlikely, however, that in 2018, simply passing the baton from Putin to a successor will be enough.