Russia: Change of Power in the Kremlin Part I
On May 7, 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was officially installed as Russia’s third president after Boris Yeltsin (1991–99) and Vladimir Putin (2000–08). He has by no means gotten off to an optimal start. The new president barely managed to warm up in the Kremlin before the Georgia war broke out in August. Over the autumn, Russia has also increasingly felt the effects of the international financial crisis . Russia’s sensational turnaround operation from a state marked by disintegration and chaos to an increasingly confident and assertive superpower may thus have stopped in parallel with the transition from Putin to Medvedev.
- How has Russia developed under Putin?
- What role does Putin play in Medvedev’s Russia?
- What international weight does Russia have today?
- What room for maneuver does Medvedev have?
2: Putin’s legacy and democracy development
A characteristic feature of Putin’s eight years as Russian president has been an extensive decentralization of power. According to the Russian constitution, it is the president who appoints the prime minister and lays the groundwork for foreign policy. There is also an imbalance built into the president’s favor in relation to the parliament: the president has the opportunity to dissolve the elected assembly, while the parliament can only remove the president through a very complicated Supreme Court procedure. According to Simplyyellowpages, the provisions of the Constitution are a legacy of 1990s Russia and a consequence of President Yeltsin struggling throughout his tenure with a parliament in opposition to his reform agenda.
Under Putin, however, the president’s formal – and not least informal – power over various institutions and areas of society has grown sharply . Putin has succeeded in taming parliament by building a strong, president-loyal party. Since the 2003 election, the United Russia party has
controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
At the regional level, Putin has tightened his grip on governors and republican presidents. These are no longer elected by the people, but are appointed by the president. And last but not least, the Kremlin under Putin has to a far greater extent than in the 1990s been able to control the political discourse through state ownership in the nationwide television channels.
With so much power in the hands of the president, it was long speculated that Putin would not step down when his term expired in the spring of 2008. Admittedly, the constitution dictates that a president can not serve more than two consecutive terms (twice four years), but this was not seen as a crucial obstacle. Putin controlled the sufficient number of votes in parliament to be able to implement the necessary constitutional changes. Opinion polls also showed that a clear majority of the population was happy to see Putin continue as president.
That’s not how it went. Putin declared that he wanted to step down, and instead launched First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his hand-picked successor. In a well-directed regime change, Medvedev won the presidential election in March 2008 with more than 70% of the vote, and in May Putin formally handed over power to Medvedev. Or did he really do it? The fact that Putin took over as prime minister when he moved out of the Kremlin has led many to claim that he still has the decisive say in Russian politics.
Admittedly, formal power is still linked to the presidency, but it is beyond any doubt that Putin is the most influential prime minister in Russia since 1991. The prime minister has traditionally had a primary responsibility for economic and social issues, and to a large extent has only pursued that policy. as designed by the Presidential Administration. Putin has changed the way the government works and taken a far more active part in the overall policy-making.
At the same time, Medvedev has struggled to fill the void left by Putin in the Kremlin. Many had hoped that the new president would take Russia on a new and more liberal course (Medvedev served under Putin as the informal leader of the liberal, reform-oriented wing). The first policy proposals after the change of president promised in this way: Medvedev signaled that the fight against corruption and a strengthening of the judiciary were high on the president’s agenda. He accused the Russians of what he called ” legal nihilism “: instead of following the letter of the law, according to Medvedev, it was almost a popular sport to try to circumvent the law.
This tendency to disregard laws and the judiciary is further exacerbated by the corruption that permeates all walks of life in Russia today. Corruption is by no means a new phenomenon. In parallel with the growth of the economy in recent years, however, Russia has fallen further and further on the Transparency International’s corruption index: In 2008, Russia ended up at 147th place (out of a total of 180 states) against a shared 90th place (out of 146 states) in just four years earlier.
It is difficult to estimate the exact extent of the corruption, but Medvedev is undoubtedly right when he refers to the phenomenon as a decisive obstacle to further economic and social development. Medvedev’s response was to initiate a comprehensive revision of the legislation, but before the amendments had been adopted by the State Duma (Parliament), it was the war in Georgia and the international financial crisis that dominated the political agenda. Thus, the anti-corruption work can become another loud campaign that dies almost before it leaves the desk in the Kremlin.
The campaign’s prospects for success are also not strengthened by the uncertainty about what political weight Medvedev really has. Medvedev and Putin have admittedly carefully avoided proposals that can be interpreted as signs of disagreement about the political course. But more than six months after the change of president, Putin’s plans for Medvedev remain uncertain.
This uncertainty did not diminish after Medvedev in his first speech on the state of the kingdom in November 2008 called for extending the president’s term from four to six years. In contrast to anti-corruption legislation, this constitutional amendment was hammered through parliament within a few weeks. This rekindled speculation that Putin is preparing for a political comeback in 2012 – this time twice for six years.