Home » News » Putin Still Holding the Reins

Putin Still Holding the Reins

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM) promotes cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, and free speech.




While supporters of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are pushing him to establish himself as a stronger tandem member, many political experts increasingly believe that no matter who becomes president in 2012, the road to the presidency still runs through Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Medvedev’s personal relationship with Putin, lack of a party foundation, and a small pro-Medvedev bureaucratic cadre limit his ability to be reelected without Putin’s consent. With the election not until 2012, wildcards such as political instability, health concerns, or a major economic decline could change the tandem equation, but experts perceive that no matter whether Putin, Medvedev, or someone else becomes President in 2012, Putin will have the final word.

Putin Will Decide 2012, Eventually

Experts across the political spectrum continue to speculate who is most likely to become president in 2012, with every credible scenario reduced to whether Putin wants to return to the presidency. Most contacts cite Putin’s desire to control the political sphere as his main rationale for returning. Director of the Center for the Study of Elites, United Russia member, and Kremlin adviser Olga Kryshtanovskaya told us that Putin was a “hostage to the system he had built.” She told Ekho Moskvy radio on January 19 that all signs suggested that Putin would return in 2012.

General Director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications Dmitry Orlov told us January 15 that Putin would “undoubtedly” return as president because he wanted to remain in control of Russia from the more prestigious seat in the Kremlin. He had stepped aside in 2008 merely to avoid unsavory comparisons to authoritarian leaders in Russia’s backyard. Compromat.ru editor Vladimir Pribylovsky told us that Putin often arranged to have the question of his possible return in 2012 asked in public formats because he wanted to return to the presidency. He added that Putin’s KGB background precluded him from trusting anyone with a no-Putin-strings-attached presidency.

The vast majority of our contacts suggested that unless Medvedev quickly did something drastic, the decision on 2012 would not be made until shortly before the election. In the lead up to the previous presidential election in 2008, Putin kept his decision not to run quiet until the last moment. Delaying the descision would prevent undermining Medvedev in the public sphere, or either of them among the elite.

Medvedev Avoiding Destabilizing Moves

Medvedev’s unilateral routes to reelection become narrower as he avoids taking destabilizing steps, such as firing senior Putin loyalists or changing the political system. This in turn increases his dependency on Putin to endorse him for another term. While pundits such as Stanislav Belkovsky and New Times Editor Yevgeniya Albats are optimistic that Medvedev has time to build a large contingent of powerfully placed supporters, others increasingly view Medvedev’s close personal relationship with Putin as inhibiting his ability and inclination to initiate a dispute over control of the bureaucracy or reform of the political system. To emphasize her view that Medvedev relies on Putin’s bureaucracy, Kryshtanovskaya said in her Ekho Moskvy interview that only 2 of the top 75 positions in government were held by Medvedev loyalists.

Medvedev’s defense of the current political system and (widely believed fraudulent) October elections during his January 22 State Council speech, moreover, disappointed those who had expected him to set a new course. Presidential Council for Human Rights and Civil Society member and political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told us January 29 that a year ago he thought Medvedev was more likely to be reelected, but after the State Council speech he viewed Putin as the frontrunner. The speech had convinced him that Medvedev had failed to garner elite or popular support away from Putin, or create a loyal bureaucratic team or political party.

Deputy Director of the Institute of Social Systems Dmitry Badovsky privately told us February 4 that Putin was likely to return as president because Medvedev had not built the political institutions necessary for him to be reelected. He gave Medvedev until the end of 2010 to establish pro-Medvedev political institutions, but seriously doubted that Medvedev, by way of First Deputy Presidential Administration Chief Vladislav Surkov, would overhaul Russia’s political party system.

Election Tied to Putin’s Perception of Control

Regardless of his lack of informal levers of power, Medvedev could return to the presidency if Putin thought that he could manage Russia from a post other than the presidency. Center for Political Technologies’ Tatyana Stanovaya gave Medvedev a 70 percent chance of being “reselected” if stability persisted over the next two years. The decision, she said, was Putin’s, and depended on his perception of being able to control Russia’s political-economic system and protect his financial interests.

Director of the Center for Political Expertise Yevgeny Minchenko told us that Putin does not want to return to the Kremlin, but needed to be in a position of control. He might be able to do that, much like he has done since 2008, as Prime Minister. Putin, however, needed to ensure that he was positioned to crush anyone who might initiate de-Putinization, or suggest that Putin had a hand in unsavory deeds, such as the murder of journalists or the 1999 apartment bombings.

While no one with whom we have spoken knows Putin and Medvedev’s future plans, Medvedev recently responded to a question on his possible career path. While not indicative of the future, KROS public relations President and former Presidential Administration deputy Sergey Zverev told us that he had heard that a journalist had asked Medvedev an off-the-record hypothetical question in late January about what position Medvedev would want if he were no longer President. After thinking it over for a moment, Medvedev responded Head of the Constitutional Court or Prime Minister.

Putin in the Driver’s Seat

Zverev stated that Putin is in total control of the situation and that he had no other option than to remain in a position of power, but not necessarily as president. Zverev said that Putin would be president if he wanted the position. If Putin wanted Medvedevto be president, then Medvedev would be president. Medvedev did not necessarily need to have a bureaucratic team or party support if Putin decided to endorse Medvedev, because Putin would remain in a position of power where he could defend his interests and support Medvedev when needed.

A recent joke circulating in Moscow emphasized Zverev’s point: Medvedev sits in the driver’s seat of a new car, examines the inside, the instrument panel, and the pedals. He looks around, but the steering wheel is missing. He turns to Putin and asks: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the steering wheel?” Putin pulls a remote control out of his pocket and says, “I’ll be the one doing the driving.”


Russia’s bicephalous ruling format is not likely to be permanent based on Russian history and current tandem dynamics. Medvedev and Putin work well together, but Putin holds most, and the best, of the cards in the tandem relationship. His return to the Kremlin is not inevitable, but should things remain stable, Putin remains in a position to choose himself, Medvedev, or another person as Russia’s next president. We should continue to engage where possible with Putin, who will continue to have a significant say in Russian affairs for the foreseeable future, regardless of his formal position.

* John R. Beyrle is a career US Foreign Service Officer and specialist in Russian and Eastern European affairs and currently Ambassador of the United States to the Russian Federation.




Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: