Questions Consume Kremlin-Watchers As Putin Steps Aside

At a rally in Chechnya last week, a portrait of Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev slightly obscures one of the outgoing president, Vladimir Putin.
At a rally in Chechnya last week, a portrait of Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev slightly obscures one of the outgoing president, Vladimir Putin. (By Musa Sadulayev -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 4, 2008

MOSCOW -- On Wednesday, Dmitry Medvedev will walk through three gilded halls in the Grand Kremlin Palace to a rostrum where he will be sworn in as Russia's third president, his right hand on a copy of the Russian constitution. To the strains of the national anthem, the presidential flag will be raised over the presidential residence. Medvedev will address the audience and the nation before a 30-gun salute signals the end of the ceremony and the arrival of a new leader inside the forbidding walls of the Kremlin.

The following day, with much less ceremony and more dispatch, his popular and powerful predecessor, Vladimir Putin, will almost certainly become Russia's new prime minister. Putin will move upriver from the Kremlin to Russia's White House, home to prime ministers, who traditionally have functioned as political errand boys for the president.

The new president and parliament will skip the traditional consultations over the choice of prime minister. "Why put it off?" asked Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the lower house of parliament. "We know whom the president will nominate."

Since the moment last year when Putin announced his willingness to become prime minister, Russia has been gripped by questions: Who will rule Russia? Why is Putin assuming a seemingly subordinate role to Medvedev? And how long will this tango last?

"If we try to answer our favorite question -- 'Who's in charge?' -- we are at a loss," said Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "We simply don't know."

Neither Putin nor Medvedev has publicly discussed the division of powers in any detail except to say they are in complete harmony about the country's direction. The two men, who have worked together for nearly two decades, with Putin as boss, have a close personal relationship. But Russian history shows that the man in the Kremlin almost always begins to savor and exercise his authority.

Medvedev, 42, is assuming an office that according to the Russian constitution is the most powerful in the land, carrying the right to dismiss the prime minister. Under Putin, the presidential administration became the country's unchallenged center of power, dominating parliament and the courts, reining in the media, and making leaders in the country's sprawling regions subject to appointment by Moscow.

"Presidential power guarantees unity and the very existence of Russia," Alexander Budberg, who is close to Medvedev, wrote this month in an essay in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. "The entire country and the bureaucratic class, seized with pride, must get used to the fact: There will be a president in Russia, and not an empty throne which has been 'put in storage' for four years."

But Putin, 55, leaves office with enormous political capital and new institutional prerogatives that at the very least will make him the most powerful prime minister the country has ever seen. Since Medvedev was elected, Putin has also been named chairman of the dominant United Russia party, beginning Thursday. The party rewrote its rules to allow its new chairman to dismiss any functionary and suspend any party activity.

"That was a clear message to the elite: 'I'm not dead yet,' " Shevtsova said.

Putin did not, however, become a member of the party he will now chair; he appears to want to direct the party but remain above it, a kind of moral leader in the eyes of Russians.

Through the party, Putin will control both houses of parliament, which can impeach the president and regional governors. He will also be master of Russia's vast bureaucracy and state-controlled companies whose ranks are full of his loyalists.

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