Putin and Medvedev: Teammates or rivals?
Vladimir Putin's decision to serve as prime minister should Dmitri Medvedev become Russia's next president has made their electoral success in March a virtual certainty. Although the Communist Party's leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, and the Liberal Democrats' Vladimir Zhirinovsky are running - in contrast to 2004, when they fielded stand-ins - neither will get more than 15% of the vote. Even assuming that Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov, and Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov somehow collect two million signatures each to get on the ballot, the outcome will be the same. Indeed, so far, none of them has more than 2% popular support.
But, while Medvedev's victory in the first round of voting appears assured, the important questions will arise after the ballots are counted. How will power be distributed between Medvedev and Putin? Who will be in charge? Will Russia have to rewrite its laws and Constitution to give the prime minister more official power? Is Putin risking his political future by accepting a formally secondary role and making himself accountable for all socio-economic policy?
Russia's Constitution does not allow for a "technical presidency." The head of state has extensive powers, which alone indicates that Medvedev will be a strong president. Moreover, Medvedev is a strong-willed politician and very experienced administrator.
But Putin will be a strong prime minister, if only because he's Putin. He is set to remain the most popular person in Russia for a long time to come. That implies a system of governance with at least two decision-making centers - perhaps in addition to United Russia, the party of Putin and Medvedev, which won 64% of the vote in the recent parliamentary election up from 37% in 2003.
All this represents obvious progress from the standpoint of the separation of powers. In consenting to become prime minister, Putin is well aware of what to expect. After all, he served as prime minister for several months in 1999.
Many commentators underestimate the prime minister's powers. According to the Constitution, the prime minister is head of the executive branch, and the government is empowered to determine the main direction of domestic and foreign policy.
Much depends on who is prime minister; heavyweight politicians holding the office can potentially eclipse the president. Recall Yevgeny Primakov - or Putin at the end of Boris Yeltsin's last presidential term, when it was obvious to everyone that the prime minister was running the country. The 2008 version of Prime Minister Putin will undoubtedly be stronger than the 1999 version. So no changes are required to the laws or the Constitution for him to remain a key political player. But Medvedev - youthful and energetic, with a fresh mandate - will be far stronger than Yeltsin was in 1999.
A powerful prime minister seems preferable. One of the chief weaknesses in Russia's constitutional design is that power is separated from accountability: the president has the most power, but the government is held accountable for policy results.
From this standpoint, the American model, for example, is more successful: the head of state also leads the government. While not entirely addressing the flaws in the design, the new situation - with the strongest political figure heading the executive branch - will permit more effective performance by the government, which is still battling to recover from Putin's administrative reforms of 2004.
Many commentators have reproached Putin for agreeing to take a job that they say is beneath him - assuming responsibility for road-building, social services, inflation, and many other problems that could undermine his popularity. However, he should be thanked rather than reproached.
But how stable will this new polycentric system of governance be? How long will Medvedev remain president and Putin prime minister? What if they quarrel?
Of course, stability requires agreement between the two key actors; and there are sure to be plenty of opponents and allies trying to stir up trouble between them. But Putin and Medvedev have worked together for more than 17 years with no serious conflicts. Moreover, Putin has never made a mistake about the loyalty of the people he promotes.
In the Yeltsin era, sacked officials often took revenge by publishing their memoirs and "telling all" about their ex-boss. In the Putin era, no one has done so. Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and now an opposition critic, was inherited from Yeltsin. When Putin made the most important appointment of his life - the choice of his successor - one can be sure that his calculations were thorough.
So Medvedev will become the next president, and will hold that office for at least one full term. And Putin will remain prime minister throughout that time, with a good chance of becoming president again in 2012 or 2016 - or after any other presidential election over the next two decades.
(Vyacheslav Nikonov is president of the Politika Foundation.)
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times