The question of who will be the next Russian president has been near the top of my list of no-brainers for some time. Now it’s been answered. As Vladimir Putin told the congress of the ruling United Russia party, “It’s not really important, who will do what and which of us occupies which position. The important thing is how we work.” Indeed.
The important thing is thus what Dmitri Medvedev’s announcement—foreswearing his own ambitions to be elected for another term and recommending his predecessor and current prime minister to replace him as the next president, in exchange for replacing Putin as the next prime minister—says about the nature of the present and future Russian governments and how they work.
What it says is that the Kremlinologists who purport to discern trends, changes of line, and clashes of personality, or even competing political ideologies, from the tea leaves of minor pronouncements and marginal appointments by the two nominal leaders of Russia are wrong as usual. The important thing about the concept of “managed democracy” is that it is more about management than democracy. The truth is that not much at all has changed since Putin selected Medvedev to be president. Now he selected him to be the prime minister. Next year he may select him to be the mayor of Moscow. Or maybe not.
Putin said that this was the agreed-upon arrangement between him and Medvedev for several years, and I am inclined to believe him. It is also of interest to note the byzantine ritual in which it is the job of the junior partner to nominate the alpha-dog, thus cementing his allegiance upon which the alpha-dog graciously awards a fief to the junior partner. What better way to demonstrate who is the boss to all and sundry.
The whole charade was about handling, in an admittedly elegant way, the technical obstacles in the Russian Constitution that prevented Putin from continuing as president in the last election. And you have to give it to Putin: He could have as easily changed the Constitution, but what a crude and ugly sight that would have been. And he could have afforded choosing the constitutional way because there was never any risk of there being two centers of power, two sources of authority. There was a routine of good cop and bad cop, but always only one center, and with all due respect it was not Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Duma, or the United Russia party.
What it tells us is what many negotiators have already learned. If you want to get anything done in Russia you have to deal with the Man. Anything else is a waste of time. It also tells us that those who saw the emergence of plurality in the exceedingly gentle exchanges between the two men over the last four years were victims to a serious case of wishful thinking. The power pyramid seems to be as monolithic as ever. This should not be taken as a surprise, or as a letdown, but simply as a reminder of the realities of modern Russia.