Successor wants Putin as premier

Analysts predict poor fit, possible changes in jobs

December 12, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- The soft-spoken bureaucrat just presented to the world as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's hand-picked successor appeared on state television yesterday with a deferential plea: The country must remain under Putin's leadership.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin-backed candidate expected to ascend to the presidency in March elections, called on Putin to head the next government as prime minister. Only Putin, he said, will be able to ensure national stability.

"It is not enough to elect a new president who shares [Putin's] ideology," said Medvedev, 42. "I consider it principally important to preserve Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in a most important job of the executive power."

With months to go before the election, Medvedev's statement appeared to cede a degree of future authority to Putin.

Although he is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office, Putin is riding high on a wave of swelling oil prices and popular appeal amid widespread speculation that he would seek to stay in power. The question has been: How could Putin do so without tampering with the constitution or taking autocratic steps?

Putin did not respond yesterday to Medvedev's suggestion. But some analysts believe the speech finally tipped the Kremlin's hand.

"This is the scenario of the third term of Putin," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent Russian analyst.

Medvedev just received the golden nod Monday, when Putin appeared on television to endorse his longtime confidant's run for the Kremlin. Once anointed by the powerful and well-loved Putin, Medvedev was seen as a virtual shoo-in.

But by suggesting that Russia cannot move forward without Putin's leadership, Medvedev has raised confounding questions about how power would be balanced between the two men. In the cutthroat history of Russian politics, there is scant precedent for two strong leaders sharing responsibility, analysts pointed out.

Many analysts predict that Medvedev, who rode Putin's political rise from St. Petersburg to Moscow and into the halls of the Kremlin, would happily allow Putin to call the shots.

"It's a hierarchical relationship. Putin has always been the boss of Mr. Medvedev," said Piontkovsky. "If he becomes prime minister under Medvedev, then he'll effectively keep all the instruments of power."

But others were skeptical. Once Medvedev is in the Kremlin, they said, he will come into his own, building a new team and eliminating enemies.

"There will be two bears in one den, and that usually leads to general disorder, to sharp conflict or to the defeat of one of them," said Victor Kremeinuk, deputy director of Moscow's USA and Canada Institute.

Medvedev is playing the role expected of him now, Kremeinuk said. But once he gets into the presidency, he will be unable to tolerate a strong, independent prime minister.

"This is not the Russian style. The one at the top is the boss, and he knows better than anybody else what to do and how to do," Kremeinuk said. "If anybody tries to be independent, he is an enemy and must be punished."

The Russian presidency has loomed as a nearly omnipotent office since Boris N. Yeltsin changed the constitution in the 1990s to amass power. The prime minister, on the other hand, has filled a comparatively weak, heavily bureaucratic role.

Some observers are deeply skeptical that Putin, the former spy who rose from obscurity to masterfully manipulate the intrigue and infighting of the Kremlin, would be content to give over the powers of commander in chief. Medvedev, a bureaucrat and lawyer by training, seems equally out of place among the strongmen who traditionally hold sway in Russia.

The seeming incongruity raises the possibility that the two jobs could be altered to suit the men. Since Putin's United Russia party captured more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the Kremlin could amend the constitution to beef up the premiership while whittling down presidential authority.

In the past, Putin has indicated that he is opposed to redistributing governing powers. But some analysts insisted the inherent awkwardness of his position could change his thinking.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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