Five Hypotheses About the Future of Power in Russia

Note: Originally in the now-defunct Russia Blog. Didn’t get this one right either because Putin did come back and, maybe, never really went away. I advance my explanation for why he came back here, in 2015.

JRL/2008/ 53/ #15
March 10, 2008
Five Hypotheses About the Future of Power in Russia
By Patrick Armstrong

A consensus appears to be developing that Putin has contrived a means of staying in power indefinitely. The idea is that, one way or the other, Medvedev will be a dummy President and Putin, as Prime Minister will retain the real power. However, the accounts that argue this point – for example Christopher Walker at RFE – fail to consider one salient fact.

And that is that, had he wanted, Putin could easily have been elected President for a third term on Sunday. No one can doubt that one or two years ago Putin and his machine could have secured the necessary majorities to have removed Article 81. 3 of the Russian Constitution (“One and the same person cannot hold the office of President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms”). This is, after all, what the leaders Walker cites have done. It would have been by far the easiest way for Putin to stay in power: the Presidential machinery of power that Putin spent so much time building up would remain without change and with the same man in the chair.

But he didn’t. Therefore, any argument that Putin is staying in power has to explain why he didn’t take the easy route to that power.

Nonetheless, we did not know what will happen. I propose that there are five possible hypotheses for the future power structure of Russia.

We cannot yet rule out the possibility, despite the facts above, that Putin has contrived a means of keeping power. Two possible hypotheses flow from that:

1. Putin pretends to be Prime Minister and Medvedev pretends to be President, but Putin keeps the real power and makes the real decisions. This seems to be the consensus of commentator opinion.

2. Medvedev resigns after a suitable period and Putin becomes Acting President and is elected for a third, non consecutive, term.

The objections to either of these possibilities remain: if Putin had wanted to stay as the supreme power, amending the Constitution would have been much easier than this contrived and complicated process. Therefore these two hypotheses appear to be less likely than others.

Two more hypotheses are possible on the assumption that Putin’s concern was to ensure that the transition period be as smooth as possible. Indeed, his recent speeches, both in the Duma and Presidential elections, as well as Medvedev’s, have had one theme: “Do not fear, nothing will change, the same team and the same policy will continue”. Under this assumption, therefore, Putin’s saying that he will continue as Prime Minister, has the object of telling everyone, both inside and outside the Kremlin, that nothing will change. Supporting this possibility are all the rumours about power struggles inside Putin’s team over the past six months.

Two hypotheses come from this assumption:

3. He will not serve as Prime Minister.

4. He will serve as Prime Minister, but only for a few months in order to ensure that the transition has been completely uneventful.

A fifth hypothesis is that Putin wishes to break the one-man power system of Russia. Both he and Yeltsin were virtually the only actors and Russia has a long tradition of being a one-man system. One can see this phenomenon in Putin’s press conferences when Ivan Ivanovich from Bezbogorod phones to complain that his roof is leaking and that Father Putin should repair it. An exaggeration, to be sure, but many of the questions are appeals to the supreme power on details that, in a normal state, would be below his level of responsibility. Under this assumption, we have a fifth hypothesis.

5. Putin is attempting to break one man rule by establishing the Prime Minister as a powerful figure and creating a separation of powers between President and government and a certain creative tension.

In this connection, his and Medvedev’s speeches have concentrated lately on the next phase of the plan: what might be called intensive development. Under this hypothesis, Putin would be a powerful Prime Minister concentrating on the improvements that must be made in health, education, infrastructure, high technology and the other deficiencies if Russia is really to become a truly modern and prosperous country. As part of a team, of course – and this was the other great theme of recent speeches: there is a team running Russia, and that team will stay in place. This hypothesis, of course, has dangers in that Russia’s experience with dual power has not been a happy one and raises the possibility of real differences between the President and the Prime Minister or their apparatuses that could paralyse the country.

So, I can see five hypotheses in three groupings: that Putin is contriving a way to stay in power (but why then did he not do it the easy way?); that Putin is motivated by fears for the smoothness of the transition and finally that he is trying to use his prestige to establish the post of Prime Minister and government as real players in the Russian power system and not as mere puppets of the Presidential Administration.

At the moment there is insufficient data to decide for one of these and, as Sherlock Holmes remarked: “The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession”.