MONDAY SAW THE endorsement of a presidential candidate that has ended months of handicapping the chances for various rivals, maneuverings, and back-room politicking. It is a choice that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for most of the world, and its implications may have the current White House occupants debating endlessly on how to respond.
Despite what one might think, this is not Oprah Winfrey's coming out as the Cheerleader-in-Chief for Illinois Sen. Barak Obama, although the cacophony of that event blaring out of American television sets made it hard for one to notice this much more significant event. The endorsement was the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to designate First Deputy PM Dmitri Medvedev as his chosen candidate to succeed him when the country elects a new president in March 2008.
Unlike the still to be quantified impact of Oprah's support for Obama, Putin's endorsement of Medvedev does everything but guarantee that he will be the next man to occupy the president's office in the Kremlin. The spin to be put on this by the Kremlin spin doctors is that--despite the fact that the Russian electorate will have next to nothing to say about who is their next president--this is "democracy in action" and that this is an "orderly, legal transfer of power." Orderly it will be. Medvedev made it clear that he wishes to see an almost seamless transition from one president to the other because Russia needs "to ensure the continuity of the course of the past eight years." In other words, meet the new boss--same as the old boss.
But whether there will be a true transfer of power from one man to the other is far less certain.
Over the last year there have been endless predictions about which of several scenarios Putin would employ in order to essentially stay in power and run the country from a position other than that of Russian president. Medvedev made it clear that the path chosen now is the one that was considered the most likely by many observers. Putin will now become the Russian Prime Minister, a position that unlike the presidency has no term limits.
"I consider it of fundamental importance for our country to retain Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in the most important position in the executive branch, the post of prime minister of the Russian Federation," said Medvedev. "I ask him to give his consent, in principle, to head the Russian government after a new Russian president is elected."
This in no way means that Putin will now be second banana to his long-time political ally. The 42-year old Medvedev has known the Russia President since the two worked together in the St. Petersburg city government in the beginning of the 1990s, and it is almost certain that he will continue to be the junior partner in their relationship--making him, as one Moscow colleague said, "a president who has all of the constitutional authority of the Queen of United Kingdom."
Informed speculation is that one of the first tasks taken on by the Russian parliament that was elected at the beginning of December when its first session opens is to shift many of the powers and responsibilities of the office of the President to the Prime Minister while Putin is still president. Currently, the "power ministries"--defense, foreign affairs, internal affairs, the heads of the intelligence services--all report to the president. It is now expected that they will be made answerable to the PM.
But the true sign that Russia is a state still ruled by Putin is "when and how this nuclear suitcase will be transferred to him," said a Moscow political analyst. "These nuclear codes are the true symbol of power--like the royal scepter with a jeweled orb on its top that was held by kings and emperors in ancient times. When this happens we can truly say that the power of the state has been realigned. I do not think Mr. Putin will spend more than several hours without this 'royal scepter and orb' of nuclear power in his hands when he changes jobs."
But just making the PM's office the constitutional centre of power is not the full extent of Putin's continued grip on the all of the levers of power in Russia. As is usually is in Russian politics, the best way to describe the situation is by reciting the most current joke on the subject.
This one-liner goes as follows: "the President of the conglomerate Gazprom-Lukoil-Yukos-Rosoboronexport-Russian Milk Production-Avtovaz-Russian Timber-Russian Aluminium and All-Russia Gold Mining Corporation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, has agreed that he will make some time on his calendar for a meeting with the President of the Russian Federation."
Putin, in addition to riding herd on this huge business and financial empire in which almost any major industry that makes money is headed by a Chekist (Russian slang for anyone who has served in the intelligence services) or a St. Petersburg political ally, will also more than likely become the General Secretary of the United Russia party. This puts the control of the main, Kremlin-backed political party and almost all of the major industries in the hands of a select few, which in times of high oil prices means almost unlimited power.
"All of which means that it is doubtful that we will see a truly competitive election in Russia anytime in the near future," said the Moscow political analyst. "It may be decades before there is a party that can challenge United Russia. There is no space--no oxygen--left in the system now for any political movement to challenge the Putin cabal."
As for how the lives of ordinary Russians will be affected by Putin hanging on to the royal scepter as the PM instead of as president the answer is probably "very little." Comments by many of those who did actually vote in the recent parliamentary elections make it clear that people in the post-Yeltsin era are only concerned with stability, not a truly representative democracy. "The best we can hope for now," said a longtime Moscow friend, "is that we will not return to the [Soviet-era] days of throwing more people in jail and using psychiatric wards to silence those whose political protests become an annoyance."
For his part, Putin's choice remains unrepentant about soon becoming the head of a political system that pretends to be a democracy, but has eliminated almost all of the democratic institutions as quickly as ways could be found to demolish them. A Russia that is feared by everyone is more important than one which is just and ruled by consensus. "The world's attitude towards Russia has changed," said Medvedev. "People no longer try to teach us. People respect us and reckon with us. Russia has regained its rightful place in the international community."
Reuben F. Johnson is a contributor to THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.