United Russia thoroughly dominates Russian politics, by means fair and not so fair. It rewrote the constitution so that presidents will now serve six-year terms instead of four. Its popularity is propped up by its strict control of television—though support has been declining.
Power behind the ‘tandem’
Since 2008, Medvedev, 49, and Putin, 58, have styled themselves as the “tandem.” (When Putin was president the first time, prime ministers were afterthoughts.) Medvedev, who came from Gazprom, the giant state-owned natural gas company, was the face of modernization, the leader who carried an iPad and talked about the rule of law and the need to rein in corruption. Putin, who came from the KGB, was the tough guy, the outdoorsman who beat the Chechen separatists in a ruthless war and sent the upstart oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, off to prison camp for a long, long time.
Now Russia is entering “Putin stagnation,” said Oreshkin — for 12 more years, unless the system cracks before then.
Putin said Saturday that he and Medvedev had agreed long ago on this course. But Oreshkin believes that Putin had lost confidence in Medvedev — that having locked him into a subordinate role, Putin became afraid Medvedev wasn’t up to the daunting economic and demographic challenges ahead.
Putin talked at the congress about Russia’s economic problems, though he also promised to raise government salaries and modernize Russian armaments.
Under stress, there has already been a fracturing of Russia’s elite, and that may also have played a role. Yuri Luzhkov, the longtime mayor of Moscow, was fired a year ago. A plan to create a tame opposition party under billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov became an embarrassment. The people around Putin, said Mark Urnov, head of the Expertiza Foundation for Analytical Programs, may have been pushing him to resume the presidency.
“Putin as president is a guarantee to protect the existing distribution of property and power,” he said.
More of the same
Putin and those he talks to may also have been worried that Medvedev, once elected to a six-year term, might decide he didn’t need to be so dependent on the chief, Oreshkin said.
But Putin’s decision to return, said the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, “is an indicator of the social and economic crisis.”
At the conference of the opposition Parnas party, which has been refused permission to take part in December’s parliamentary elections, the news of the swap was greeted with laughter.
“It will hasten the collapse of the system,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who turned against Putin. “The next year will be hard, but 2013 even harder.”
James F. Collins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said in a recent interview that a Putin presidency would likely set off a round of criticism of the Obama administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia. But anything that Medvedev has said or done in the name of modernization up to now has been done with Putin’s consent, he said.
“The last three years or so have put in place a set of new approaches to the relationship that serves both sides,” he said. “No one doing practical work with Russia thinks anything occurs against Putin’s will.”
Now, it will just be a little clearer. Russia may talk a tougher game under Putin, Urnov said, but in practice little should change. Especially with domestic issues becoming so pressing, Russia won’t be able to afford to go looking for adventures or confrontations abroad.
Researcher Yelena Sorokina contributed to this report.