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Analysis: With Transition, Power In Russia Moves Further Into The Shadows

Putin (left) and Medvedev in the Duma on May 8: 'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!' (ITAR-TASS) The official line on the transfer of power in Russia is continuity. Incoming Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his successor in the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev, have stressed that they are like-minded leaders who are ready to work together under the existing structures to continue the policies of the last eight years.

"The Constitution of the Russian Federation distinctly, clearly, and unambiguously enumerates the powers of the president and of the head of the government," Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov told "Vremya novostei" recently. "I have nothing to add to that. There is no dual power and there will not be. There is a team of like-minded people with a shared vision of the future of the country."

But Mironov's sanguine posture notwithstanding, most analysts see the Russian Constitution as an extremely loose framework. In fact, during the run-up to the national elections in December and March, pro-Kremlin analysts who were urging a third term for Putin or other mechanisms under which he could remain in power openly argued that the constitution needed to be rewritten because it had been systematically violated so many times that it no longer corresponded to the political situation in Russia.

"Our constitution in reality allows the most extreme variants: either a super-presidential or a semi-presidential republic," political analyst Aleksei Makarkin says. "And if the latter variant is chosen, then we shouldn't talk of a presidential-parliamentary republic but of a presidential-prime ministerial one."


Throughout the reorganization of the power structure over the last four years, Putin has deftly manipulated the vagaries of the constitution to his political advantage while publicly presenting himself as the reliable protector of the country's fundamental law. The clearest example of this was his elimination in 2004 of the direct election of the heads of federation subjects, a move that legal scholars said violated numerous provisions of the constitution. Leaving unchanged the ambiguous constitution could also prove advantageous in the event of the still-not-unlikely scenario of Putin returning to the presidency, either after a Medvedev term or as a result of an early presidential election.

Preparing to move into the prime minister's chair, Putin continued this approach -- preparing major power-structure shifts at the level of the law on the government and presidential decree. Last month, Duma Deputy Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the Constitutional Law and State Structure Committee, told journalists that he is preparing major legislative changes that will affect at least 150 current laws. Under the revisions, some 500 of the cabinet's currently enumerated 2,894 responsibilities would be delegated downward. Giving an idea of the scope of the changes under way, Pligin said his committee is discussing a further 200 bills aimed at "improving the quality of Russian governance." He emphasized, however, that no changes to the constitution are envisioned.

The changes being implemented so far are clearly intended to give the prime minister a major political role. Throughout the post-Soviet period, the key function of the prime minister has been to provide political cover for the president, serving as a technical implementer until a crisis (political, economic, social) erupted and the president needed a scapegoat. Therefore, the law gave responsibility for vast areas of governance directly to the cabinet. Now those responsibilities are being pushed downward to the ministerial level. The next time there is a crisis, the world is likely to see Putin on television firing a minister, rather than Medvedev on television firing Putin.

More Opaque

At the same time, media reports suggest Putin will have a vastly expanded number of deputies -- as many as 11, according to "Gazeta" this week. Currently, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov gets by with two first deputy prime ministers and three deputies, although in the past he has had even fewer. Previous government restructurings under Putin have been justified with arguments that fewer deputies and fewer ministries would lead to greater efficiency. These arguments are now being turned on their head. (It remains unclear whether the current number of ministers, 15, will be adjusted.)

Tellingly, Putin's first clear move in restructuring the prime minister's office was a decree issued last month that created three new posts responsible for the premier's public image. Putin will be the first Russian prime minister with a personal press secretary and a speechwriting staff. In addition, the prime minister's office will have a protocol director, a move that seems to indicate that Putin will play a prominent role in international affairs.

"Prime Minister Putin, naturally, will concentrate in his own hands all power, except a few 'status items,' while Comrade Medvedev at first will have about as much authority as Princess Anna in 'Roman Holiday' had," political analyst Aleksei Mukhin summarized in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Inevitably, a key result of this system will be a qualitative increase in the opacity of Russia's ruling system. If, as all signs currently indicate, the Kremlin becomes a hollow power center, that fact will, of course, have to be concealed. Hopes that the purportedly liberal Medvedev will bring sunshine into the Kremlin are likely to be disappointed.

Furthermore, Putin clearly seems to be bringing his natural preference for opacity with him into the government. Already journalists have been barred from moving freely about the White House or from speaking informally with ministers and other officials. Moving government responsibilities down from the cabinet level to the ministerial level will also do much to further conceal decision-making. This environment will make it more difficult than ever for Putin to pursue his stated goal of combating corruption; the practice of selective prosecutions and secretive redistributions of property that has emerged under President Putin will, in all likelihood, thrive under Prime Minister Putin.

Russia's "managed democracy" is entering a new phase of even stricter management and even less democracy.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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