Both President Vladimir Putin -- who seems all but certain to become prime minister after his term expires in May -- and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- who seems all but certain to replace Putin as president -- have been stressing in recent weeks the need to help the country's destitute. Both have commented on the need to raise pensions and state-sector wages (particularly for the military) and to close the appalling and growing gap between the richest and the poorest.
More than that, the State Duma has already begun transforming their promises into deeds, passing legislation that will put cash in the hands of pensioners and soldiers in short order.
Under Putin, Russia has evolved a political system in which the direct tie between voters and legislators in the Duma has been severed. Likewise the tie between voters and their regional leaders. Moreover, the media and most public organizations, including labor unions, have been brought under the Kremlin's control. In short, the beneficiaries of the Putin/Medvedev social largesse have no remaining levers of political pressure.
The explanation would seem to lie with the Kremlin's desire to create some impression of legitimacy and strength for Medvedev, who was a relatively unknown and colorless bureaucrat just a few weeks ago. Although there has never been any doubt that Putin's choice would win the election, the presidential administration has taken great pains to ensure the highest possible voter turnout and a solid showing for Medvedev, one that rivals or exceeds the percentage Putin himself received in 2004.
For years, the common wisdom in Russia is that Putin was able to navigate among the various factions in the political elite in large part by inflating the impression of his popularity among the general public. This impression is also important on the international stage, where the illusion of popularity is often taken for reality and thereby blunts foreign criticism of the Kremlin's domestic authoritarianism. As the country's political transition proceeds, it seems evident that Putin intends to transfer this aspect of his political power to Medvedev.
Russian analysts speculate that the so-called siloviki -- those with ties to the defense, law enforcement, and security organs -- are interested in restraining Medvedev's showing in the March 2 presidential poll. Although they are not interested in forcing a second round (as it would require considerable manipulation to push the vote under the 50 percent required for a first-round victory), they reportedly would like him to poll rather closer to 60 percent than to 70 percent or above.
"In the political elite of Russia there are many people -- mainly representatives of the siloviki -- who would like to see Medvedev poll less than 60 percent," an unnamed election official told "Vremya novostei" this month. "They want Medvedev to be a weak president."
Medvedev's greatest ally against such designs -- in addition to the Kremlin's total control of the national media and the election commissions -- are the regional administrations. Since 2005, governors have been appointed by the president, severing their tie to the constituents they purportedly represent. The December legislative elections, in which the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party was awarded a constitutional majority in the lower chamber, showed how local officials pulled out all the stops to demonstrate their loyalty to the central authorities.
In the presidential poll, most of Medvedev's local election campaign offices are headed by senior officials in the regional administrations. "What's the best way to show the next president that you love him? In this election, the answer is to guarantee him a good turnout so that Medvedev becomes Russia's legitimate president in everyone's eyes," an unnamed election official told "The Moscow Times" this month.
According to the daily, officials have pressured hospitals, universities, and state factories to ensure a high turnout and solid support for Medvedev. Many large factories have been ordered to set up on-site polling stations and to insist that employees vote there using absentee ballots. Undoubtedly, the Kremlin's efforts to boost pensions and state-sector wages will help lubricate this process.
The result of this situation is a unique attribute of Russia's pseudo-democratic system: Medvedev will be granted the illusion of broad popularity through a tacit alliance with the bureaucracy, the force in Russia that is generally seen as the most daunting obstacle to significant reform. According to economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, the bureaucracy had ballooned to 1.45 million people by the end of 2006. He estimates the bloated bureaucracy costs the economy some 2-3 percent of GDP per year, not counting the huge sums lost to official corruption.
Given the structure of Russia's "managed democracy" system, a dependence on a huge team of "managers" is inevitable. Medvedev's accession to the presidency is based on a closed network of mutual self-interest among officials from the Kremlin down to the smallest state factories and schools. The system is geared primarily toward the process of insulating itself from outside pressures and influences. Despite the liberal rhetoric in Medvedev's speeches -- rhetoric that sounds a lot like vintage 2000-01 Putin -- it is hard to imagine this system ever being redirected toward doing anything else.