Monday, December 10, 2007
President Dmitry Medvedev
So now we know. It will be Dmitry Medvedev, not Sergei Ivanov (and not Vladimir Putin) who succeeds Vladimir Putin. Putin, it's just been announced, "fully supports" Medvedev's candidacy to replace him when he leaves office after his second term expires in the spring.
So all hail President Dmitry. There is, of course, the small matter of elections to be sorted out, but you can be sure that the Kremlin - unless this decision creates a major rift behind the red walls - will make sure Putin's man is elected. The liberal opposition is self-destructing anyway, choosing not one, but three candidates to run for the presidency in April.
So what can be deduced from this, in these first minutes after Putin's announcement? To me, it says that Putin, instead of choosing someone else from inside the siloviki, the cadre of security service veterans who run the country, has chosen someone personally loyal to him. Medvedev is not a chekist (ex-KGB agent) like Putin and Ivanov, he's a Putinist.
Medvedev has been at Putin's side since the early 1990s, when Putin was chief of staff to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoliy Sobchak and Medvedev was a foreign affairs advisor.
As Putin rose to power, Medvedev followed. First he was chief of staff to Putin after he was appointed prime minister in 1999 by Boris Yeltsin. Then he ran Putin's 2000 presidential election campaign and afterwards became deputy chief of staff to President Vladimir. Next he was installed as chairman of the board at Gazprom, the giant gas company that Putin has turned into the Kremlin's most effective foreign policy tool.
When Alexander Voloshin quit as Putin's chief of staff over the sordid Mikhail Khodorkovsky affair in 2003, Medvedev was brought in to replace him and get the Kremlin back on course. Two years ago, in the first hint that this moment might eventually come, he was made First Deputy Prime Minister (along with Ivanov).
What does all this mean? Two things.
The first is relations between Russia and the West may yet recover some. The 42-year-old Medvedev is seen as more liberal and pro-Western than the hardline Ivanov. Ivanov was the tough guy you always saw in military fatigues noddling gravely at the testing of new Russian military hardware. Medvedev was the mild-mannered man in the suit that you rarely saw at all until he was made deputy PM in an effort to build up his public persona (although he was theoretically also the guy who made the decision to turn off Gazprom's taps to Ukraine and Belarus when those countries bucked the Kremlin's will...).
The second is that real power will remain in the hands of our old friend, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Putin's choice was between a man unquestionably loyal to him (Medvedev) and a man unquestionably loyal to the system (Ivanov). He chose the former.
Medvedev owes Putin everything. If Putin asks him to do something - to make him prime minister, or even to relinquish the presidency because Vladimir Vladimirovich misses the comforts of the Kremlin - he'll do it.