Will Russia have a caretaker president for the next five years?

Posted in Russia | 24-Jun-07 | Author: Jules Evans

Julian Evans, columnist of Eurasian Home website
Julian Evans, columnist of Eurasian Home website
For the last couple of years, much ink has been spilled by hacks and pundits on the ‘2008 problem’. The problem being that the Russian constitution only lets a president rule for two consecutive terms, so president Putin is obliged to step down, even though he enjoys approval ratings of over 80%.

Russia now seems remarkably calm about next year’s presidential elections. It’s clear, first of all, that Putin will step down. Many people in the West and in Russia thought he might not – indeed, some in Russia begged him not to. But it always seemed very likely to me that he would step down.

The reason, as Charlie Ryan, CEO of Deutsche Bank UFG, once told me, is that “the constitution is the only law in modern Russia that is sacred. It’s the only document on which a stable law-abiding society can emerge, and Putin knows that”.

To suspend the constitution and declare himself perpetual ruler would look too crass, too overtly authoritarian. “He doesn’t want to look like Turkmenbashi or Lukashenka to his compatriots or to other countries”, as political scientist Viatcheslav Nikonov puts it.

Nikonov thinks there is an 80% chance that Putin’s successor will be either deputy prime minister Dmitri Medvedev or other deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov. At a conference this week, I asked him and Alexander Shokhin, head of the powerful Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which one of those two they thought the president would be. Neither would say.

At first, I thought they didn’t say because they were scared of getting it wrong and getting on the wrong side of the victor.

But actually, I think the reason is this: they know the winner will be Sergei Ivanov, but they hope it will be Dmitri Medvedev, so they don’t declare their honest opinion, in case it helps Ivanov’s chances.

In any case, it seems clear to me that Ivanov will be Putin’s appointed successor, and Medvedev will be the prime minister. The reason is simple: Medvedev has little experience of foreign affairs. Ivanov is tougher, more experienced in international relations. Putin will trust him more to stand up to the US and not be seduced by western flattery into betraying national interests.

The next five years will be defined by two things – stimulating domestic development, and defending Russia’s interests abroad, with regard to NATO, the US missile shield, the future of the CIS, and Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

It makes sense that Medvedev be in charge of over-seeing Russia’s domestic economic development, in his capacity as prime minister, and Ivanov be in charge of Russian international policy in his capacity as president.

What I’m suggesting, then, is we will see more of a two-tier form of government, with the prime minister more of an actual authority figure, balancing out the power of the president. This would be a new system of government for Russia, but I think this is what will emerge.

It’s not that Ivanov will be weaker. It’s that he has little economic experience, so will simply delegate more domestic economic policy to the prime minister’s office. The ministry of economic development, by contrast, is likely to be weaker. Medvedev will take on more of its roles.

Still, there is the remaining question: what will Putin do, and will he come back in 2012? This question will define the whole nature of the next five years in Russian politics.

As Alexander Shokhin said at a conference on Monday: “Will the next president of Russia be a genuine president, with all the moral rights of the president?” Or will he simply be a caretaker president, following the orders of Putin until Putin himself returns to power in 2012, and serves for another two terms.

Shokhin noted: “The government is now working on a development programme that plans ahead to 2020. That would give time for one non-Putin term and then two more Putin terms.” As Shokhin points out, even in 20 years time, Putin will still be younger than John McCain is now.

So must the next president simply be loyal to the creed of Putin, at the risk of the Great One himself descending from on high to criticize him if he deviates from the true path of Putinism?

We note that Putin has already, this month, passed a new budget code which will tie the hands of the next president with regard to how much oil revenues can be spent by the state. In some ways, the move is unconstitutional. Why should one president get to dictate how a government can act in five years time?

I think it would be unfortunate if the next president didn’t feel free to act in his own way and follow his own policies, with Putin constantly back-seat driving. You need one decision-maker calling the shots, not a decision-maker constantly looking over to his predecessor to see if he has his approval.

We shall see how the next president behaves once he is comfortably in office, surrounded by a bunch of sycophants, with the nation’s TV channels at his control. Perhaps he will not be so quick to give up his seat.

But Putin’s successor will have a big disadvantage. A president is always defined against his predecessor. That was John Major’s biggest problem – he wasn’t Margaret Thatcher.

Putin’s biggest advantage is he wasn’t Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had made such an incredible mess of the country, and been so hit by the low oil price, that Putin’s only slightly less corrupt and accident-prone governance seemed divinely inspired in comparison.

But the next president is going to have to cope with a lower oil price, higher domestic gas prices, and higher utilities prices. All of this is going to eat into Russians’ purchasing power, and make those credit card bills begin to hurt. As the consumer feel good factor goes, the nostalgia for the Putin era will flood back.

Which will make it particularly easy for Putin himself to return to power in 2012, whether his successor likes it or not.

JULES EVANS, a British freelance journalist based in Moscow

Published in: Eurasian Home web site