When Putin announced yesterday that he supports First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him next March, the country's bureaucratic and political elites fell over themselves to be among the first to affirm their loyalty to the newborn prince. But the outward show of unity does not mean the transition problem is resolved.
Putin took some pains to make the anointing seem like a consensus-building process. He met with the leaders of four pro-Kremlin parties, all of which agreed to nominate Medvedev. However, by doing so, he undermined even loyal supporters such as St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who was widely quoted the day after the December 2 Duma elections as saying she hoped Unified Russia would nominate its candidate in an open process, taking into consideration the opinions of party members, rather than through some "backroom" negotiations.
The Communists were quick to see through the charade. "What kind of parties are these," Communist official Ivan Melnikov was quoted on December 11 as saying, "if the decision about what candidate to nominate is made at some sort of 'consultative meeting' and not at a party congress, taking into consideration the opinions of party members?"
The "backroom" process compelled pro-Kremlin figures to resort to the most elaborate verbal contortions in order to make the unfolding medieval scenario appear like the next step in Russia's march toward its own form of democracy. "Each of the parties, in its own way, is realizing its political program by supporting a single candidate," A Just Russia official Aleksandr Babkin said on December 11. "And this shows how the political system in Russia is maturing, and we now have the chance to make consolidated decisions, despite our differences."
But the campaign to have Putin named "national leader," calls for some sort of national assembly to confer supreme-leader status on Putin, the primitive cult of personality forming around him, and other features of the current political environment belie any argument that Russia's political system is maturing.
The appearance of a prince does not mean that Russia's perilous managed transition has been completed. In fact, that transition now enters its most dangerous phase. Four political parties have endorsed Medvedev, but political parties -- even the mighty Unified Russia -- have no importance in the political system that has emerged under Putin. It is the votes of Putin and his inner circle of "chekisty" that count, and only time will tell whether Medvedev can overcome any intra-elite resistance he may encounter.
Back To The Middle Ages
In the early medieval period, it took Russia several centuries to establish the principle of direct royal succession. For generations, the death of a ruler led to brutal, open warfare either between the ruler's children, on the one hand, and his brothers, on the other, or among the ruler's children from different wives. Notably, the deceased ruler's stated preference for an heir rarely did much to prevent these conflicts.
There is already considerable evidence that the powerful "uncles" in Putin's inner circle -- figures such as deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin, Rostekhnologia head Sergei Chemezov, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, and Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Cherkesov -- have been butting heads as the succession issue lingered in the air. At the same time, there is little evidence that they have rallied, or will rally, around the princeling Medvedev, even with Putin's seal of approval.
Complicating Medvedev's task is Putin himself. Although Russia appears to have a new king, the old one is far from dead. In fact, the decidedly uncharismatic Medvedev was almost certainly chosen in part because there is no danger that he could ever overshadow Putin. Putin has said he has no intention of retiring from the political scene and that he expects to wield influence beyond the March 2008 election.
On his first day as prince, Medvedev appeared on television to appeal to Putin to serve as his prime minister if he is elected. With Unified Russia and its constitutional majority in the Duma behind him, to say nothing of Putin-oriented organizations like For Putin! and Nashi, Putin will remain a force with which Medvedev must contend. In addition, Putin has formulated a number of key domestic programs, especially economic-development plans, with a time frame through 2020, meaning that Medvedev will be additionally constrained on the level of policy.
Although this short leash is no doubt intended to mollify the "uncles" and reassure them that this change is really no change at all, it could serve to weaken Medvedev to the point that they feel even more emboldened to attack him. It is widely believed that most of them favored a third term for Putin and that some have been making efforts to compel Putin to stay on. As prime minister, Putin would become acting president if Medvedev resigns or is forced from office.
"Putin will maintain his influence, and while Medvedev is entering into his new role, [Putin] will watch and see how Medvedev manages to build consensus within the elite," analyst Dmitry Badovsky told gazeta.ru on December 11. "And then he will decide if Medvedev is succeeding or not. If not, Putin will come back."
Russia also has a time-honored tradition of strong leaders killing off their heirs -- either literally or metaphorically. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great both killed their own sons. On the other hand, Russian history offers few examples of successful tandem leadership along the lines of the Medvedev-Putin model currently being floated.
Russia's current political transition has moved a step forward with the appearance of an heir. But the drama is far from being played out.