Last December Russian President Vladimir Putin chose Dmitry
Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, to succeed him in the
country's presidency. March 2 presidential elections are
anti-climactic, as they are going to ratify this choice, and as Mr.
Medvedev is the only candidate likely to win.
Like in 2004, these are elections are without a real choice, in which one voter has cast his crucial ballot - Mr. Putin himself. The elections may have a democratic facade, but not substance.
Mr. Putin's great trust in Mr. Medvedev, who at 42 is 13 years younger than the Russian president, comes from a 17-year acquaintance and collegial relations with his successor. Mr. Medvedev was Mr. Putin's legal counsel, chief of staff, chairman of Gazprom, and first deputy prime minister. But he always was subordinate to his mentor and patron.
Mr. Putin's desire to remain in power while putting up Mr. Medvedev as a figurehead, has led the Kremlin to make sure the democratic opposition would not pose a serious challenge. With liberal politicians Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov maneuvered out of running, the Russian Central Election Commission disallowed Mikhail Kasyanov, the former premier, to run.
Besides Mr. Medvedev, there are three other candidates for the presidency. The two veteran post-Soviet politicians, the Communist Party's leader Gennady Zyuganov, and the Liberal Democratic Party's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are "niche" politicians unlikely to get more than 15 percent to 20 percent of the vote each. Pro-Kremlin Andrei Bogdanov of the tiny Russian Democratic Party is not a serious contender.
State control of the media would ensure Mr. Medvedev gets lots of publicity. His 73 percent popular support in the latest opinion poll, together with Mr. Putin's high popularity, show the majority of Russians are content with the status quo: The state is allowed to flex its muscle, often in violation of the letter and spirit of the law and the constitution.
At his Feb. 14 news conference, Mr. Putin gave further indications he wants to remain at the helm. He made clear that the Cabinet, led by the prime minister, will be dominant as far as implementing policy is concerned. Thus, he said "the highest executive power in the country is in the hands of the Cabinet. There are enough powers to go around and... [Medvedev] and I will divide them between ourselves."
Mr. Putin said that the "Cabinet" is in charge of running the economy, of dealing with social problems and of "ensuring our country's defense and security." In terms of how long he might stay in power, he said: "I formulated the objectives for the development of Russia from 2010 to 2020," and "if I see that I can realize these goals in this position [of prime minister], then I will work as long as this is possible."
When asked if Mr. Putin would hang in his office President Medvedev's portrait or his own, Mr. Putin revealingly answered that as prime minister "I do not have to bow to [Mr. Medvedev's] portraits." Mr. Putin might be the prime minister in a President Medvedev administration, but he will be the senior figure in terms of political capital and the execution of government policy.
What about Mr. Medvedev's plans for Russia? His speech at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on Feb. 15 has been widely hailed as liberal. He declared his government platform is founded on the belief that "freedom is better than no-freedom" under the law. He said "ensuring that the judicial system is truly independent" is one of his policy objectives.
Mr. Medvedev outlined his reform priorities as the "four eyes": "Institutions, Infrastructure, Innovation, and Investment." Regarding Institutions, he proposed to cut the number of government employees, to transfer tasks from the state to the private sector and to combat corruption. He also stressed the need to lower the tax burden on businesses as part of his Innovation and Investment goals.
Nonetheless, many experts and foreign diplomats are unsure how liberal Mr. Medvedev is. Inviting Deep Purple for a Kremlin concert may not be enough. As chairman of Gazprom's board, he certainly used a hard-line approach in dealing with countries opposed to Moscow's policies and energy interests. Claiming "free market price formation" Gazprom cut gas supplies to Ukraine in early 2006, interrupting, in mid-winter, the flow of gas to a number of European Union countries.
The Russian gas monopoly's appetite for expansion into nonenergy sectors of the Russian economy led German Gref, then Russian economic development minister, to complain that "if all Gazprom's assets, which are already worth over $300 billion, ... are used across all economic sectors, we will find ourselves with the 19th century-style monopolistic state capitalism."
Mr. Medvedev seems to back Mr. Putin's support for the "national champions," giant state-controlled companies with a decisive influence in the national economy.
The United States and its allies need to watch the Putin-Medvedev tandem carefully. Mr. Putin wants Mr. Medvedev viewed as a more liberal and independent player, who is more palatable to the West, in order to allow Russian companies to expand their investments in Europe and other countries in the OSCE.
However, unless there are clear signs that President Medvedev takes charge of Russia's defense and foreign policies, it would be safe to assume Mr. Putin and the siloviki (the top power brokers from Russia's security services and the military) will continue business as usual. This includes a confrontational approach on Kosovo, opposition to missile defense deployment in Poland, abrogation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, heavy-handed approach to Ukraine and Georgia, and an anti-Western campaign at home. Both the Bush administration and its successor will have their hands full dealing with an anti-status quo Russia which remains under Vladimir Putin's control for years to come.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times