At the conclusion of Russia’s recent electoral cycle, as expected Vladimir Putin’s hand-chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, was overwhelmingly elected president of the Russian Federation. Somewhat more surprisingly, Putin chose to head the Russian government, technically under Medvedev, as the country’s prime minister. Since that time, Russia watchers have been fascinated with trying to understand this arrangement. Under both Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president had clearly been the most powerful figure in Russia. Indeed, the Russian constitution grants a very large degree of formal powers to the Russian president, so much so that political scientists refer to Russia as a “super-presidential” system of government.
With Putin moving into the prime minister’s office, however, the importance of this formal arrangement immediately came into question. We can imagine that this has led to one of three possible scenarios. First—the general consensus of the international media—one could imagine that Medvedev was little more than Putin’s puppet, with ultimate authority still resting firmly on the shoulders of Putin. Proponents of this view note that Medvedev has spent most of his adult life working for Putin and that he had little or no independent power basis of his own, including, crucially, no background in the Russian security services—a marked contrast with Putin's long service in the KGB. It is important to note, however, that adopting this view requires us to suspend the belief that formal powers matter in Russia – or, at the very least, to assume that informal networks and power are more important than formal ones.
A second argument holds that formal institutions do matter in Russia, and that eventually political power will indeed flow to the holder of the Russian presidency. We can imagine two different variations of this scenario: one in which Putin is aware of the fact that power will flow to Medvedev, and one in which he is not. If it is the latter case, then we can imagine that eventually Russia is going to enter a period of heightened instability, as crucial actors begin to defect from Putin to Medvedev. It is potentially more interesting, however, to consider the former scenario: that Putin might willingly have taken on the role of prime minister even if he knew this would eventually result in real power flowing to Medvedev.
Why could this possibly be the case? One explanation might be that Putin himself desired to step down from the presidency—perhaps to enjoy a lifestyle more akin to his former diplomatic partners Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair—but found himself unable to do so. We can see some potential evidence of this from the repeated trial balloons that were sent out prior to the recent election cycle about various post-presidency roles for Putin, as well as in the infighting that broke out among various factions of the Russian security service around that time. Besides, had Putin wished to continue serving as president, it is very likely that he could have done so. While the Russian constitution does contain a clause limiting presidents to no more than two consecutive terms in office, there is little doubt that Putin could have amended the constitution to allow himself additional terms in office had he so desired.
Prior to 5 November, we had no idea which of these three states existed in Russia. All three would have seen a high degree of cooperation between Putin and Medvedev, which is exactly what we witnessed in the first months of the Medvedev presidency. While the tendency has been to interpret this as a sign that Medvedev is little more than Putin’s puppet, it is also consistent with a view of Putin providing a “buffer” for his protégé as Medvedev settled into the role of the president and built up his own sources of support.
On 5 November, however, Medvedev announced that he would pursue a constitutional amendment to extend all future terms of the Russian president to six years. The legislation necessary to enact this amendment is working its way through the political system, but its eventual passage is all but assured. While we can not know for sure why Medvedev chose to introduce this amendment, one possibility that can not be dismissed is that Putin is preparing an imminent return to the Russian presidency, which can be accomplished by an early Medvedev resignation. Russian law prohibits the president from serving more than two consecutive terms, but once the constitutional amendment has gone through, this would mean that Putin could return for 12 more years as president.
Why now? Again, only Medvedev knows definitively, but the most likely culprit is the Russian economy, which is currently being battered by the global economic crisis and the now rapidly declining price of oil. In many ways, the Putin era has been defined by a tacit trade-off between a Kremlin that has accumulated more and more political power—to the point where Freedom House no longer considers Russia a democracy—in return for delivering economic stability and prosperity. Despite Russia’s vaunted hard currency reserves and impressive stabilization funds, the amount of foreign debt that has been accumulated by Russian corporations—including what are largely state owned or state dominated corporations—has left Russia more susceptible than expected to the international credit crisis. Additionally, Russian exports and government revenue are both highly dependent on oil prices, which are now plunging to a previously unimaginable $40 a barrel.
If the grand bargain of the Putin era is beginning to unravel, then it would not be all that surprising that the Kremlin authorities would like to avoid another presidential election for the foreseeable future. The fact that the constitutional amendment will extend the presidential term starting with the next term suggests that the only way to take advantage of the new six-year term immediately is to have Medvedev resign, with Putin being his likely successor. If this does come to pass, it probably shows that Putin has come to realize that trying to run the country from the position of the prime minister—especially during an economic downturn—is not viable in the long term. If Medvedev does not resign, however, this will remain an open question.