As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin celebrates his 59th birthday today, it is arguably an especially happy occasion for him. Two weeks ago, on September 24, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would step aside so that Putin, instead of him, could represent the United Russia Party in the March 2012 presidential elections. This means that Putin—who after years of dominating the political scene is unlikely to face a credible challenger—could serve as leader of the Kremlin until 2024, when he will turn 72, around the same age as his predecessors in the Soviet era. But perhaps Putin should not celebrate too soon.
To start with, Putin’s decision to anoint himself as the presidential candidate so far in advance of elections is a risky political course. Medvedev, who is still president for the next seven months, does not appear happy about the plan. When he announced it in his speech to the Kremlin-sponsored United Russia Party Congress, Medvedev suggested the decision had been mutually agreed upon with Putin as far back as 2007; Putin for his part appeared to promise to the congress that he would make Medvedev his prime minister after he comes into office in early May. But just two days later, on September 26, Medvedev seemed to give full vent to his discontent, when he fired Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a close Putin associate, at a meeting of the president’s Modernization Commission.
Kudrin had been in Washington at the IMF meetings when Medvedev made the announcement about the presidential race. Apparently caught by surprise, Kudrin told reporters that he would not be able to work under Medvedev as prime minister because of their policy disagreements over government expenditure. Medvedev responded by telling Kudrin at the meeting on the 26th that his statements in Washington were “inappropriate and inexcusable” and asked him to tender his resignation. When Kudrin replied that he would first consult with the prime minister, Putin, Medvedev snapped back: “You may consult with whomever you like, including with the prime minister, but while I am president, I make such decisions myself.”
Medvedev’s bold action suggests that a smooth transition to the presidency for Putin is unlikely. For starters, Medvedev ignored the fact that he had no formal authority to fire Kudrin. According to article 83 of the Russian Constitution, the president nominates and dismisses ministers “at the suggestion of the prime minister.” So the order for the dismissal should have been initiated by Putin. (For his part, Putin—doubtless wanting to avoid further conflict—hastily prepared the order after the fact and Kudrin was formally dismissed at the end of the day. But Putin has made a point of stating publicly that Kudrin will remain in the government.)
Furthermore, Kudrin has been a particularly important figure in the Kremlin, both for the high regard in which he is held in Russia and the West and for his longstanding ties to Putin. (Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution considers Putin and Kudrin to be so close that he dubbed the two “Pudrin.”)
One can only assume that this daring and uncharacteristic move against Putin was prompted by Medvedev’s public humiliation on September 24. Indeed, contrary to what was claimed at the party congress, Medvedev had in recent months made no secret of his own presidential ambitions. In a June 19 interview with the Financial Times, he responded to a question about whether he planned to run for a second term by saying that “any leader who occupies a post such as president is simply obliged to want to run [for re-election].”
Although many observers have portrayed Medvedev as a clone of Putin who was all along simply warming the president’s seat until Putin returned to power Medvedev has been publicly at odds with Putin on several occasions.
In December, 2010, for example, when asked about members of the liberal opposition, who had recently created the People’s Freedom Party, Putin was vitriolic in condemning them, whereas Medvedev defended the oppositionists’ right to have their voice heard: “These are public political figures. People relate to them differently. They each have their own electoral base.” As it turns out, the People’s Freedom Party was denied registration for the December 4 parliamentary elections, so its leaders—Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Vladimir Milov—have asked supporters to vote against all candidates as a protest against the Kremlin’s political monopoly. (In the Duma, Putin’s United Russia now controls 315 seats, while the Communist, Liberal Democratic, and Just Russia parties have just 57, 40, and 38 seats, respectively.)
That same month, Putin accused former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was appealing a second criminal sentence in a Moscow court, of being a murderer and said that, “a thief should stay in jail.” Medvedev then chastised the prime minister publicly: “It is absolutely clear that neither the president nor anyone else in government service, has the right to state their position on this case, or any other case, before sentencing.” Whereas Putin, who considers Khodorkovsky to be his arch-enemy (mainly because the latter funded opposition political parties in 2003), Medvedev has said more than once that Khodorkovsky’s release on parole would “pose no danger to society.” (Though he has yet to use his presidential powers to ensure that the Russian judiciary acts fairly and independently with regard to the case.)
More recently, in March 2011, after Putin voiced disapproval of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya and compared it to a call for a “medieval crusade,” Medvedev again admonished him: “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusade’ and so on.” Under Medvedev’s auspices, Russia abstained from voting on the resolution, thus paving the way for NATO military action.
As Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief at Radio Ekho Moskvy observed: “There were many issues like this between them. They have different styles. One of them was brought up as a Brezhnev-era officer and the other as a Gorbachev-era lawyer. These people see the world differently.” In Venediktov’s view, Putin decided to run again because he felt that Medvedev’s loyalty was crumbling: “this meant either putting a new person in place for the coming six years in order for loyalty to start from zero, a fresh person, obliged to [Putin] for everything, or to sit in the seat [of the presidency] himself.”
Indeed, Medvedev seems to doubt Putin’s apparent promise to designate him prime minister. As part of his tirade against Kudrin on September 26, he fumed that “there is no such thing as the new government [i.e. formed by the new president in 2012.] No one has been handed an invitation to join.” In the meantime, Medvedev can continue to cause trouble. As Russian political observer Pavel Felgenhauer observes: “the lame duck president may still theoretically attack Putin, using the immense powers concentrated in the Kremlin.”
Once he returns to the presidency (if all goes as planned) Putin could face even greater challenges. Putin’s approval ratings—while still high by western standards—have declined by ten percent since last year, to 68 percent according to a September Russian Levada Center poll. (Medvedev’s approval rating was 62 percent). As president, Putin could see his popularity plummet if the Russian economy stagnates and living standards fall.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently forecast that Russia’s economy will grow more slowly than previously estimated for 2011 and 2012 because the outlook for oil prices has worsened and capital continues to leave the country. Russia’s dependence on natural resources, its severely outdated economic infrastructure, and poor business climate will continue to threaten growth. In addition, corruption continues to plague the bureaucracy at all levels and Putin has shown no inclination to tackle the problem.
In a recent interview on Ekho Moskvy, Gennady Gudkov, a retired FSB colonel who is deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Security, predicted that a severe crisis would occur within just a few years of a Putin presidency—a crisis that could, he implied, bring the traditionally passive Russian people out on to the streets. (In January 2005, there were massive protests throughout the country by pensioners against Putin because their benefits had been reduced.)
Western leaders, for the most part, pinned their hopes on Medvedev as president in 2012, because he has demonstrated a greater willingness than Putin to cooperate on a wide range of issues. Now they will apparently have no choice but to do business with Putin. Hopefully that will not prevent them from continuing to press for human rights in Russia. Coincidentally, Putin’s birthday falls on the same date as the murder, five years ago, of celebrated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a vehement and courageous critic of the then president, who famously disparaged her reputation after her death. Although Russian authorities have charged the alleged hit men (a new trial is expected in the next few months) the more crucial question of who ordered the murder has yet to be resolved.
It is worth noting that in a new Levada Center poll about the Politkovskaya case released this week, over half of respondents said that the initiator of the crime would never be found and one out of four believe that the Russian security services, Putin’s main stronghold of support within the governing elite, are behind the murder. We might conclude from these responses that Russian people are not ignorant or naïve about their government; they are just fatalistic. As the Arab uprisings have reminded us, fatalism is not necessarily a permanent state.