or Preserve His Legacy?
Vladimir Putin at the United Russia Congress - Photo by AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to keep people guessing, especially when it comes to his future in Russian politics and business. His surprise this week (as reported in the American press)--suggesting that he may consider becoming Prime Minister following his tenure as President--was undoubtedly his biggest yet.
Previously, there were two schools of thought about Putin's future. The first--and one favored by many Putin-haters in the West--suggested that he would seek a change in the Constitution, allowing him to remain for the third term. The second--offered by private investors and many business publications--suggested that Putin would leave Presidency in order to head one of the Russia's state corporations, such as Gazprom. Like many Western politicians, they thought it likely that he might "capitalize on his connections."
Recent revelations by President Putin do not support either of these theories. In order to understand what the future holds for Putin, it is important to read exactly what he said in his recent address at the United Russia party convention:
"Though I was one of the initiators of United Russia's founding, I, like the vast majority of people in our country, am not a member of any political party, and I would rather not change this status. I think it would be wrong to change the Constitution to suit one particular person, even if that person is someone I most certainly trust.
The proposal to head the Government is entirely realistic, but it is too soon to talk about this at the moment because at least two conditions would first need to be met. First, United Russia would have to win the State Duma election on December 2, and second, our voters would have to elect a decent, effective and modern-thinking President with whom it would be possible to work together. What we need to talk about today is the fact that your party can and should be an instrument for guaranteeing social stability and ensuring that the next parliament and the state power system in general can function effectively... It is therefore with gratitude that I accept your proposal to head the United Russia list."
The statement above clearly debunks the theory about a desire to change the Russian Constitution and is murky at best with regard to his purported desire to be Prime Minister. Further, it demonstrates only a moderate interest in affiliating or allying more closely with United Russia. Taking a seat in the Duma as a Member of Parliament seems unrealistic for a prominent political figure like Putin. And while many Western newspapers have basically declared Putin to be a future Prime Minister of Russia, Russian analysts are wondering why would Putin choose to "degrade" his political stature.
There are, of course, many possible answers as to why Putin might be interested in becoming Prime Minister. The most simplistic answer is also the most popular: Putin wants to hold on to power at any cost. Moreover, once he endorses a presidential candidate (one who is likely to have very little individual political power), he will still maintain a high level of authority in Russian affairs. The fact that many key government positions in Russia are held by Putin's close allies, and that Russian people (at least 40% of them, according to The Wall Street Journal) will vote for a candidate endorsed by Putin, supports this theory. However in our opinion this scenario completely falls apart, especially given the legal realities in Russia described below.
The position of Prime Minister in Russia is largely a ceremonial one, and decisions about ministry appointments are made by the President. Efforts to expand the powers of the Prime Minister would require a change to the Constitution. This task is certainly achievable--especially given United Russia's majority in the Parliament. But is it realistic to assume that Putin would support changing the Constitution to expand the powers of the Prime Minister but not to afford him another term as President? Highly unlikely. Also, a change in the Constitution would damage Putin's reputation--particularly given his voluminous statements rejecting such a move.
There are examples of powerful foreign leaders (Deng Xiaoping in China or Grand Viziers in the Ottoman Empire), who held relatively minor positions, yet exercised great power. Closer to home, the U.S. experience with party bosses of the 19th century--such as Mark Hanna (an insider in the McKinley Administration) or Franklin Roosevelt's aide, Harry Hopkins (known as "the power behind the throne")--demonstrate the power and influence of otherwise minor political figures. So while Putin might not have much real power as PM, he may retain enough loyalty in the United Russia party ranks to have effective power. And again, this would not require a change to the Russian Constitution. However, given the constraints of the Russian PM position as currently constructed, what is the likelihood of this happening?
President Putin's decision to lead the list of United Russia, but not join the party or seek a seat in the Parliament, is also very unclear. United Russia already has a majority in the Duma, and is likely to retain it, perhaps even increasing its numbers in the upcoming election. And that is without Putin's endorsement. It may be that the party fears losing power, though that seems unlikely. Even before Putin offered his support, 47% of respondents (up two points since early September) were prepared to support United Russia in this year's ballot--this according to Angus Reid Global Monitor Polls & Research.
Many foreign and Russian media sources have pointed out the negative side of parliamentary majority by United Russia. However, few have paid attention to what the party has accomplished in the last eight years. While many feared that United Russia would alter the Russian constitution to accommodate a third term for President Putin and other party leaders--that predication has proven incorrect. Instead, private property rights and flat-tax laws were passed, the war in Chechnya was effectively ended, and dependable banking systems were created. On the other hand, it is indisputable that Yeltsin and liberal party members are largely responsible for the bloodbath started in the Caucuses and for the failure to introduce even basic libertarian policies--ones that have resulted in the tenfold increase of Russia's stock market and rates of foreign investment.
"Last year there was a record increase in investment, 13.5%, and for the first seven months of this year it has been more than 20%. All this bodes well for the future," said Vladimir Putin, in a speech in which he also explained why he chose to support United Russia in the upcoming elections:
"Everyone knows that I not only supported the creation of the party but was one of those who spearheaded its creation. Why? Because as a result of the shock therapy of the mid-1990s, the financial crisis of 1998, and the tragic events in the Caucasus, our economy and society in general were in a depressed state. The same can be said of the morale of the country at that time. Our territorial integrity was under threat. In these circumstances, it was absolutely essential to consolidate our political forces. And United Russia became a cohesive force throughout Russian society, a force that ensured political stability and the implementation of our socio-economic programs."
It really doesn't matter at the moment whether Putin supports United Russia, nor whether he accepts their offer to assume the Prime Minister's position. What does matter is Putin's answer to the question of how involved he plans to stay in Russian politics, and more importantly that the answer is "yes." That's what foreign investors want to hear, according to The Wall Street Journal and the Stratfor Intelligence Brief. After all, much of the foreign investment in Russia has been fostered by the stability associated with Putin's administration. If Putin chose to step away from the political scene entirely, it is likely that Russian stocks and foreign investment rates would take a significant hit.
There are also many personal promises Putin has made and commitments that will require his involvement. For instance, he has promised the International Olympic Committee a successful Olympic Games, to be held in Sochi in 2014. "Many future champions of these Olympic Games are now 14-16 years old. Now we must do everything in our power for the revival of sports and physical education, to convince a new generation to choose a healthy lifestyle," said Putin, who has given too much attention to subjects that usually don't matter to an already popular politician who is about to leave his post.
There is also an argument that Putin is "seeking" the role of Prime Minister just to avoid being labeled a "lame duck" in the last days of what has been a successful presidency. Analysts and the media may be reading too much into Putin's statement about his intentions which--although not directly suggesting his willingness to assume the role of Prime Minister--still received significant media coverage around the globe.