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Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Sunday Swan Song . . . Not

The Associated Press reports:

When Boris Yeltsin left the Kremlin eight years ago, he gave Vladimir Putin the pen he had used to sign important documents and decrees, a gesture symbolizing the transfer of power to Russia's new president.

When Putin left the Kremlin, he took the pen with him.

Putin, who became prime minister Thursday, has signaled that he intends to remain Russia's principal leader, at least in the short term _ and possibly much longer. He is keeping the trappings of his presidency and many of its powers as well. It was not always meant to be this way. Putin initially said he intended to hand the full powers of the presidency to his chosen successor and step aside. But as the time drew near, he clearly changed his mind as infighting between rival Kremlin factions spilled into the open, threatening to undermine political stability.

Veterans of the secret services have come to dominate the government under Putin, a 55-year-old former KGB officer. These powerful figures, known as the "siloviki," have been given leading roles in major businesses _ including oil companies and aircraft and automobile manufacturers _ that Putin has brought back under state control. They see Putin as the key to preserving their positions and continued access to financial flows. Some of them opposed Putin's choice of Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer, who was inaugurated as president on Wednesday. Putin may have decided to stay around to keep the peace and protect his protege until he consolidates his position. Immensely popular and at the height of his powers, Putin appears to want Russians to see him as still in charge and to anticipate his return to the presidency in 2012, which he has not ruled out.

In a fervent 45-minute speech Thursday before parliament, Putin laid out huge ambitions for the economy and boasted that under his leadership Russia "had not just changed but become a different country." He was approved by a vote of 392-56, with only the Communists opposing him. Medvedev, by contrast, was a lackluster supporting player, introducing Putin in a bland five-minute address that underlined Putin's potency. Putin left the Kremlin on Wednesday, but just moved down the road to the building known as the White House, the government headquarters near the U.S. Embassy. In anticipation of his arrival, the prime minister's fifth-floor office overlooking the Moscow River has been renovated and its staff greatly expanded. Many of those who served him as president have made the switch, and others are expected to follow.

Putin will continue to travel to work in a motorcade from the same wooded estate in one of Moscow's most exclusive suburban neighborhoods where he lived as president and which is now his to keep. While quietly laying the groundwork for expanding the scope of the prime minister's office, Putin has firmed up his position by becoming chairman of the Kremlin's dominant political party, which gives him control over parliament and strong leverage over regional leaders. Members of that party still have Putin's portrait in their offices. Putin has said he feels no need to hang the portrait of Russia's new president in his office in a traditional sign of respect. Other government officials will hang a picture of Medvedev and have to decide whether to take down Putin. Many are expected to hedge their bets by displaying both.

Aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, whom Forbes magazine calls Russia's richest man, said recently that it is clear Putin remains in charge. "In Russia, in our culture we need to have a leader," Deripaska said at a lunch with foreign journalists. With Putin in control, Deripaska said there is no risk of political instability. "There is no chance for any intrigue. Don't bet on it," he said. Putin and Medvedev, who have worked together since the early 1990s, stress their friendship and full agreement on Russia's course.

But Putin seems to be taking no chances that Medvedev will turn against him. His party has a 70 percent majority, which gives it the power to change the constitution, block legislation or impeach the president. As prime minister, Putin will control the budget and oversee gigantic state corporations, including Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas producer. These corporations, staffed with Putin loyalists, have allowed Russia to reassert its global might. Both men have said Medvedev will set foreign policy.

Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said there will be no need to amend the constitution, which in spelling out the powers of the president and prime minister leaves room for interpretation. "The gray areas will be shared differently than they are now," he was quoted in Vremya Novostei as saying. An early signal of the level of Putin's influence will come when Russia forms a new government. Most members of his team are expected to remain in high posts. Another important sign will be the TV coverage of Putin and Medvedev on national channels, which are all under Kremlin control and have served as a political bellwether. Medvedev has been given lavish coverage, but Putin remains the main hero of the evening news.

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