For Exhibit A, one needs to look no farther than the effect the Luzhkov affair has had on the ruling United Russia party's approach to the regions.
As one of United Russia's co-founders, Luzhkov dominated its Moscow branch, which he made sure was tightly intertwined with his mayor's office. And as Vitaliy Ivanov, director of Institute of Politics and Public Law, wrote recently in "Izvestiya," Luzhkov also went to great lengths to assure that the local party maintained its independence from the national leadership:
He...did his utmost to keep the Moscow branch of United Russia separate from the rest of the party, and he consequently did whatever he could to prevent the centralization of the party. In November 2004, for example, Luzhkov opposed a move to amend the party bylaws to include the mandatory approval of the lists of candidates of regional branches by the party leadership.
So when Luzhkov fell out with the Kremlin, lost his job, and ultimately quit the party, United Russia's local Moscow organization was left out in the cold -- tainted by its association with the disgraced ex-mayor and rudderless without him at the helm.
According to a report in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," citing anonymous United Russia officials, the whole episode has led the party brass to question "the advisability of fusing the party structure with the system of executive power."
Like in the Soviet Union's system of interlocking directorates, the overlap of United Russia's leadership with top state positions -- both regionally and nationally -- was a key element in Putin's power vertical. And that might be about to change:
In order to avoid similar scandals with a negative impact on the party's ratings, the party must henceforth form its own vertical axis of authority that is autonomous and independent of the executive. There must not be a complete fusing of the two. So the leaders of regional organizations need to be independent public political figures. Otherwise the party, elections, and the entire political system may be at risk. It is not right when all political decisions linked directly with party elections and party campaigns are made in executive offices, party ideologists are coming to believe.
How this would work in practice is not entirely clear. Presumably each region would have its own little tandem -- a governor who runs the executive branch and the bureaucracy and a party boss who sits atop the party "apparat," setting the broad policy agenda and keeping the locals in line with Moscow's wishes. Sound familiar?
In a recent article in Politkom.ru, Mikhail Tulsky, president of the Center for Political Analysis, notes that the Kremlin is now seeking technocratic managers as opposed to high-profile politicians when it selects regional leaders:
The party boss, by virtue of United Russia's dominance of regional legislatures, would be able to handpick governors and keep them loyal and under control. It would also be plugged in to the federal center in Moscow -- a sort of power vertical 2.0. (Or, a Communist Party of the Soviet Union redux.)
The governor would handle the day-to-day governance -- and take the heat when things went wrong. The party boss would make the big decisions and stay above the fray. There would be little question about who was really in charge.
Is this system coming? At this point it is hard to tell. But it certainly is on the table, or else it would not have been floated in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" the way it was.
Moreover, this concept strongly resembles the model I have long suspected might be tried out nationally at some point. Back in the spring, there were was a fair bit of media chatter suggesting that Putin was preparing to take the reins of United Russia in earnest with the goal of reforming the party and turning it into a more effective vehicle for his continued rule.
The more I watch Russia's ruling tandem operate, the more I expect Dmitry Medvedev to stay on as president for another term -- or at least I think that this is the ruling elite's Plan A at this point. And this is not because I think he is winning some imaginary competition with Putin, as some commentators suggested after Luzhkov was sacked. (See this post for my current take on the Putin-Medvedev relationship.)
And if this is the case, there are few better perches for Putin to rule from than as United Russia's new style General Secretary -- especially if such a model has already been established in the regions.
-- Brian Whitmore