Vladimir Putin’s decision to return to the Russian presidency, despite the drama surrounding the announcement, surprised almost no one. Putin hinted at his return along the way, at times so obviously as to suggest he had lost interest in the game. For example, when he sent his NATO envoy, Dmitri Rogozin, to speak at a conference with President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this month, Rogozin contradicted all Medvedev’s main points. No one would dare show up the president in public like that without Putin’s express direction.
And while that may have been embarrassing for Medvedev, there was no international audience for that episode. The way Putin announced his return on Friday, however, was in the fashion most degrading to Medvedev. He said: “I want to say directly: An agreement over what to do in the future was reached between us several years ago.” In other words, Putin declared in front of Medvedev and while the country was watching that Medvedev never had any power and he never would. But it got even worse for Medvedev, and fast.
Immediately after the announcement that Medvedev would become Putin’s prime minister–reversing nothing but the titles the two men have as they sit atop the “tandemocracy”–Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin thundered that he would resign if Medvedev became prime minister. (He did not complain about Putin’s looming presidency, as he is an ally of the Russian strongman.) This–not the announcement Putin would become president–terrified Kudrin’s Western counterparts. Kudrin is a budget hawk given to free market economics, and represents the voice of reason within the government of a country rich in oil and natural gas.
If the fact that the world yawned at Medvedev’s future but panicked at the prospect of losing Kudrin wasn’t bad enough for the sitting Russian president, Kudrin’s threat was interpreted both inside and outside Russia as Kudrin’s way of making a play for prime minister himself–something that remains a distinct possibility, even though Medvedev has already been publicly designated as the next prime minister. Today, in what may have been the most damaging incident yet, Medvedev ordered Kudrin to resign from the government. Though Kudrin eventually submitted his resignation, he made a show of reminding Medvedev that he didn’t actually have the power to fire him outright. Here is how Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty described the ensuing exchange:
A surprisingly defiant Kudrin said that he would consult with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin before taking any action. Medvedev ordered Kudrin to make his decision by the end of the day.
“You know what?” he told Kudrin. “You can consult with whomever you want — with the prime minister — but as long as I am the president, I make such decisions myself.”
Medvedev seemed eager to demonstrate to the public and to senior officials that he remains the president until the end of his term in May 2012.
The exchange could provoke a crisis since, under the Russian constitution, the Russian president can only fire a deputy prime minister on the recommendation of the prime minister, although he can fire the entire government, including Putin.
Kudrin’s grandstanding was another boon to Putin, since it made Medvedev look like a powerless president who could be defied without consequence; Medvedev is now dangerously close to being a political laughingstock. Though Putin values loyalty–indeed, it is the foundation of the siloviki’s consolidation of power in the post-Yeltsin years–he may value raw power and political legitimacy even more. As such, he will strongly consider replacing Medvedev next year with Kudrin. In a note of bitter irony, Medvedev was once the relative “liberal” the international community hoped would be in power; without question the West would now rather have Kudrin as prime minister.
It’s unclear if Medvedev became too ambitious for Putin’s taste, or if Putin is so commanded by his own insatiable ego he cannot control himself, but in three days Putin has presided over the political tarring and feathering of his faithful, handpicked governing proxy. If any in the West doubted Putin’s authoritarian instincts, they have now lost any shred of justification for their naïveté.