What the upper echelons of the Russian political elite are deciding now is not only whether it will be Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin who will occupy the Kremlin after 2012 -- but what the contours of the entire political system will be.
In a compelling piece published last week in "Vedomosti," political analyst Dmitry Badovsky argues that Russia is moving away from the highly personalized system of authority that dominated the past decade and toward some form of tightly controlled two-party system.
Badovsky writes that consensus is building in the ruling elite for the continuation of the Putin-Medvedev tandem for the time being and for the institutionalization of shared power in the long term:
He adds that "the continued retention of power and maintenance of the general outlines of the political regime will require more complex structures than the tandem, the personal approval ratings of leaders, and the dominant party."
Badovsky then goes on to suggest that the Russian system is moving in the direction of some form of managed pluralism:
The main indication that Russian politics is moving in this direction...is the beginning of the establishment of a two-party system for this parliamentary campaign, a system in which power could be regularly turned over from one elite faction (or coalition) to another, but would always remain in the hands of the ruling class. Other parties would also exist in their own niches, but the effective consensus by members of the elite would prevent 'third parties' from taking charge of the government.
The new and more powerful version of a rightwing liberal party and the rebranding of United Russia within the framework of the Popular Front (devised partly to confine the CPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia to narrower electoral niches) seem to be elements of the scenario in question. In the final analysis, the possibility of the transformation of the partners in the current ruling tandem into the leaders of the new two-party model of the political regime, including their competition in the presidential election, cannot be excluded completely.
I agree with Badovsky that Russia is moving in the direction of a more pluralistic system -- albeit a tightly controlled one -- at least on the surface. As I have blogged on numerous occasions, I still believe that Plan A is for some form of the tandem to endure beyond 2012 -- with Medvedev as president and Putin in the role of "national leader." And there are ample signs that the party configuration following December's parliamentary elections will look different and more diverse that it does today.
But I think Putin's role in that system will be larger than a co-equal partner to Medvedev in a Tandem 2.0 arrangement. I expect Putin's role in the future political arrangements to resemble something similar to Iran's supreme leader, Turkey's so-called deep state, or China's Deng Xiaoping after he formally stepped down as China's leader but maintained decisive influence over the political process.
The lessons the Russian elite drew from the chaotic 1990s, I believe, will prevent them from a move to a more pluralistic system --even a tightly controlled one -- without a guarantor, or a "krysha."
And with his control over the security services, Putin is the only krysha in town.
-- Brian Whitmore