In a system with weakly developed institutions and a tradition of personality-centered politics, the question of who will become Russia's president in 2012 has become the fundamental issue facing the country today. This is not the first time the problem of the succession has exercised the Russian political class and observers, but each time the dynamics are different.
Whether this difference signals a greater routinization of the process or simply contrasting political personalities remains an open question. In other words, to what degree do Russia's constitution and institutional development in general act as a constraint on the choices available to the main political actors?
In the 2007-08 succession operation, the constitution ultimately shaped the process, in that the president, Vladimir Putin, left after his designated two concurrent terms. This was an important achievement in strengthening the formal framework of constitutional politics, however much the manipulation of the electoral system and the informal limitation on genuinely competitive elections ultimately determined the outcome.
The 2007-08 succession was shaped by the bitter conflict between and within factions associated with the regime. The public aspect of the parliamentary and presidential election was little more than the tip of the iceberg. Thus Russia at that time had two succession contests: the one conducted in public, regulated with pedantic detail by the Central Election Commission and populated by the political parties, the media, and public associations; and the one hidden from view, in which factions slogged it out behind the scenes.
Occasionally the subterranean contest burst into view, as in the arrests of Sergei Storchak and Aleksandr Bulbov, and the emergence of various pieces of "kompromat," including about Putin himself, with stories of his alleged great wealth making the rounds. There was also the background of the regime's fear of a "color" event, an Orange-style intervention of popular mobilization in the service of one or other section of the elite or foreign powers. The Nashi and other parapolitical movements were in turn mobilized to close down the scope for unsanctioned street politics.
Permanent Campaigning Mode
Things are very different in the current succession round, focused on parliamentary elections in 2011 and the presidential election in 2012. First, the two main contestants for the presidency are known well in advance, whereas in 2007-08 there was much speculation about the leading candidates. Now prime minister as part of the governing "tandem," Putin has repeatedly stressed that the whole procedure will be conducted strictly within the framework of the constitution. But he has also stated that closer to the time, he and President Dmitry Medvedev would get together and decide who should go forward.
Latterly, he has remembered to add that ultimately the people will decide.
Putin seems to have entered a permanent campaigning mode, with well-publicized trips across Russia. His drive in September from Khabarovsk to Chita along the nearly completed highway that for the first time links the European part of Russia and its Far Eastern regions with a metalled road, accompanied by various interviews, was a well-calculated public-relations event.
It also revealed some of the weaknesses in his position, with stage-managed events beginning to look slightly ridiculous. In a televised encounter on a fishing boat in the Sea of Japan just before he set off on his road trip, the captain complained to Putin that he was forced to use GPS, which allegedly was always 20 meters out, and thus he couldn't catch any fish. He was looking forward to the full introduction of the Russian Glonass system, which he was sure would be much better than GPS. The artificiality of the encounter and the exaggerated nature of the claim provoked widespread ridicule.
Meanwhile, Medvedev used the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum last month to stake out a distinctive political identity and program. Attended by a number of foreign leaders and political scientists (including the present author), the event focused on models of democracy.
In his speech on September 10, Medvedev not only insisted that Russia was a democracy, but outlined a number of ideas that would help develop a distinctive interactive and participatory Russian system. At a time when the existing formal institutions of democratic contestation are stultified, this may seem rather to miss the point, yet Medvedev's pitch was clearly a long way from the inherently manipulative content of "sovereign democracy" (a term from which he distanced himself from the first), let alone the "managed democracy" with which Putin's name will forever be associated.
The Yaroslavl event brought together the elites who are lining up behind a second term for Medvedev. For them a return of Putin to power would represent the continuation of the present stalemate, with all of its attendant social pathologies, including corruption and bureaucratic degeneration. The "modernization" agenda, which has become the new perestroika for the Medvedevites, entails more than technological development but also an overhaul of state management, and thus implicitly represents a critique of Putin's style of governance. It is for this reason that Putin apparently vetoed the extensive attendance of his ministers at the Yaroslavl event.
Although much of the discussion in Yaroslavl was formal, with almost no opportunity for dialogue and debate, the event provided a framework for a distinctive form of political integration. The leaders of all the main Russian political parties were present, allowing Sergei Mitrokhin of the Yabloko party to present a withering critique of contemporary Russian democracy.
At another session, the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, was for the first time in a decade in the same room as one of the leaders of Russian liberalism, Anatoly Chubais. The latter admitted that he had had an interesting discussion with the Communist leader.
The event demonstrated just how distinctive Russia's public sphere already is, with forms of communicative action that can appear strange to Western observers. We know from the way that Medvedev carefully implements the ideas announced in his key speeches, as in the two state-of-the-nation speeches so far, that we can confidently expect that his Yaroslavl theses will be implemented in some form or another.
Second, the choices facing Putin are more complex than in the previous succession operation. Even though he undoubtedly harbors aspirations to return to the presidency, and he is constitutionally entitled to do so, political calculations make this a hazardous enterprise. After all, he was the one who chose Medvedev in the first place, and any attempt to prevent the latter's second term would be an implicit recognition that the choice was not a good one, thus reflecting poorly on Putin's judgment. Allowing Medvedev a second term would reinforce stability and "continuity," the watchword of the 2008 succession. Anything else would entail a political disruption.
In other words, a second term for Medvedev is the natural thing to do, whereas a return to power of Putin would represent a humiliation for Medvedev and a snub to that part of the elite in favor of the genuine modernization of the economy and society. Both leaders, it must be stressed, are riding high in the polls. Medvedev, in addition, has gained in political stature and is looking increasingly self-confident as president.
Third, Putin's return would be perceived as a return to the past, to a difficult era that is now being transcended, accompanied by manipulative techniques that look increasingly outmoded. Putin has made a great success of his premiership, having weathered the global financial crisis relatively successfully and the country is now enjoying nearly 5 percent economic growth. He has also declared that he is no longer interested in foreign affairs, finding the job of managing the country's domestic matters quite challenging enough.
Threatening The System
Thus the present balance of power between Putin and Medvedev works when viewed through the prism of system management. But there remains the question of whether such divided leadership provides an adequate framework for system development. This may, however, in the present circumstances be a necessary price to pay for system stability since Putin provides important political cover for Medvedev. This, however, is probably a declining asset, and Medvedev is increasingly in a position where he could manage Russia's unruly factions on his own.
Fourth, the choice is no longer Putin's alone. Medvedev certainly has his views on the matter, and he has made no secret of his desire for a second term, which will now last six years as a result of constitutional amendments enacted early on in his first term. While the tandem has overall worked well, despite the normal differences in emphasis in policy and personnel issues, it is by definition an unstable structure.
While constitutional power is in Medvedev's hands, political authority is concentrated in the prime minister. With a solid parliamentary majority behind him, any attempt to dismiss Putin would threaten the stability of the system in its entirety.
Finally, in contrast to the hidden factionalism of the earlier period, the current succession is being conducted in the form of a semi-open public politics. Russia's political system does not allow political parties a determining role in choosing the president, but political society is deeply engaged in a battle to shape the succession. Tandem-style politics has introduced a form of political pluralism into the Russian system that will be difficult to eradicate.
Although we should not exaggerate the differences between Putin and Medvedev, they do nevertheless represent a difference of emphasis. While both share the same fundamental political values and aspirations, the methods to achieve the goals differ. In politics, that is often enough to shape the destiny of nations.
Richard Sakwa is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent. His book, "The Crisis Of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism, And The Medvedev Succession" (Cambridge University Press), is due out in early 2011. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL