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Remember back in late 2007 when Vladimir Putin's presidency was winding down, the "national leader" hysteria surrounding him was at a fever pitch, and we were all busy trying to figure out how he would hang on to power?

At that time there was a idea making the rounds among Kremlin-watchers that Putin's plan was to continue to rule the country by taking command of United Russia party, which in turn controls the State Duma, the Federation Council, the bureaucracy, and local and regional legislatures throughout the country.

I always thought this theory made a lot of sense because it dovetailed nicely with the political culture Putin was raised in. Soviet leaders (at least before Mikhail Gorbachev), after all, did not derive their authority from any state post like president or prime minister, but rather by being the General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Putin, of course, chose another course, when he decided to become prime minister. He is nominally in charge of United Russia, but nobody sees this as the true source of his power.

But in comments published recently in "Novoye vremya," uber-strategist Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, suggested the idea might be back on the table.

Pavlovsky, who made his comments in the context of a debate with economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, starts from the premise that Putin -- for better of worse -- is essential to Russia's current political system:

Putin is not simply an individual, Putin is the state myth of the existing system. He is, if you like, a substitute for a civil religion, regardless of what he actually thinks about himself. The idea - 'well let's take the graphite moderator out of the reactor and see what happens' - is possibly an interesting experiment, but at that moment, it would be good to be as far away from the place as possible.

This is because Russia's ruling elite is comprised of various clans linked to commercial and bureaucratic interests. As I have written here, the clans don't trust each other, but they all trust Putin. So how do you keep the system stable without Putin? You don't, says Pavlovsky. Instead you find a way to keep him in the game:

The political tandem is a completely rational solution based on a view of the limits to the system's stability. At the end of 2007, it seemed that the system would not work without Putin. Remove him and lots of clans and other authorities, who would start to consume one another, would grow like mushrooms. And the tandem wanted to avoid this Darwinian situation. I think that if Putin had left in 2008, Medvedev would have seemed an unsuccessful president to many people within a year. Firstly, he would have immediately been judged against the background of Putin. Secondly, assuming that that he would be able to deal with these clans is an exaggeration of his actual capabilities.

The tandem solution managed to temporarily stabilize the political elite, but it has been showing signs of strain and the elite is clearly fracturing between those who want Dmitry Medvedev to become an actual president and those who want Putin to remain the de facto national leader.

And with another transition period fast approaching (Duma elections are scheduled for next year and presidential elections for 2012), the elite appears to be casting about for a new solution:

The bureaucracy can be controlled via a party, but United Russia does not control the bureaucracy. It is controlled by the tandem, while United Russia just declares this is its achievement. And that is a problem. If Putin leaves, the system will develop nasty forms of political decay, which is not limited to one party because the others are even less capable of controlling anything. Putin controls Gazprom not United Russia. And Putin would not trust those who control United Russia to manage even one gas distribution plant.

And Pavlovsky's answer to the dilemma is for Putin to take real control of United Russia and use all of its bureaucratic and administrative strength to rule the country. "I do not think that he will hold the position of symbolic leader of the United Russia party, like now," after 2012, he said. "Instead he will be its real chairman, controller and actual boss."

Just like the Communist Party General Secretaries of old.

Medvedev can run for another term as president and even appoint his own prime minister. Meanwhile, real power will remain with Putin in his new incarnation as party boss.

I tend to take what Pavlovsky says seriously because he is often a reliable barometer of elite opinion, so I think this is actually being considered. How seriously it is being considered it an open question. But Pavlovsky doesn't just throw things like this out for no reason.

Could they pull this off? Back in 2007-08, it would have been easy to go down this route had they so chosen. But in a declining economy and with an increasingly restive public it will be much harder -- although far from impossible.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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