VLADIMIR PUTIN’S announcement that he will return to the Kremlin as Russia’s president after next March’s presidential election should not have come as a surprise. Everything Russia’s prime minister has done over the past few months – from creating his “People’s Front” (a largely rhetorical device for hoovering up supporters) to posing on a Harley-Davidson – pointed in that direction.
Dmitry Medvedev, on the other hand, has been bending over backwards to demonstrate his loyalty to Mr Putin (who is nominally his inferior). For this, Russia’s acting president has been rewarded with an offer to become prime minister.
The news will have left many Russians feeling humiliated. The job swap makes a mockery of the notion of Russian democracy. Even the 600 deputies from the ruling United Russia party who filled a massive sports arena to hear Saturday’s announcement must have felt like extras in a farce when Mr Putin told them that he and Mr Medvedev had hatched their plan several years ago.
This seemed confirmation that Mr Medvedev’s presidential term was simply a device to keep Mr Putin in power without formally breaking the letter of the constitution, which barred him from running in the 2008 election because he had already served two consecutive terms as president. To Mr Putin’s credit he managed to do what almost nobody thought possible: to find a protégé who would keep his seat warm without trying to usurp it.
Moreover, it was Mr Medvedev who initiated the constitutional change that lengthened presidential terms from five to six years, paving the way for Mr Putin to occupy the Kremlin for another 12 years from March.
This newspaper has never believed that Mr Medvedev was an independent player, or that his talk of “modernisation” was anything other than a cover for Mr Putin’s continued rule. Western leaders were happier being
seen doing business with Mr Medvedev than with Mr Putin. (Mr Medvedev was also less rude at dinner, said one foreign politician.) But within the walls of the Kremlin only one man was referred to as nachalnik (“boss”).
Just how little authority Mr Medvedev enjoys has become painfully apparent with the eruption of his row with Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s long-serving and highly respected finance minister. Upon hearing that Mr Medvedev would become prime minister, Mr Kudrin (who was apparently also considered for the job) rebelled. He said he would not serve in a Medvedev government because he disagreed with his irresponsible spending policies, particularly on defence.
Mr Kudrin, who Mr Putin appointed finance minister in 2000, was largely responsible for Russia’s fiscal discipline in the early part of the decade. But covering up for the populist spending promises of his masters has become a thankless task. Earlier today Mr Medvedev publicly told Mr Kudrin to resign if he disagreed with him. Mr Kudrin obliged.
None of this will do much to help Russia’s sluggish economy. Mr Putin’s system of governance, based on distributions of rent, desperately needs a source of growth. He will return to the Kremlin at a time when corruption-weary Russian businessmen are taking their capital out of the country, when Russia’s growing expenditure needs are outpacing the oil price needed to fund them and when his much-hailed stability has turned into stagnation. The key question is not whether Mr Putin intends to stay as president for the next 12 years, but whether he will be able to do so.