Opinion: Russia′s Power Duo Offers Tenuous Political Stability | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 05.05.2008
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Opinion: Russia's Power Duo Offers Tenuous Political Stability

It's an action-packed week in Russian politics with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin taking up their respective offices. Yet everything is not as rosy as it might appear, says Deutsche Welle's Ingo Mannteufel.

Opinion graphic

Russian rulers have a soft spot for political symbolism, and there will be plenty of it on display this week. The eight-year presidency of Vladimir Putin will come to an end on Wednesday, May 7, with Dmitry Medvedev taking over Russia's highest public office. The day after the president's inauguration, Putin will be confirmed as prime minister by the Duma.

If the inauguration and the successful handover in the Kremlin weren't enough, on Friday, celebrations will get underway for the most important national holiday in modern Russian history. Victory over Nazi Germany in World War II will be observed with parades and pathos.

It's difficult to imagine a more grandiose finale to "Operation Successor."

Putin's sweeping success?

Ingo Mannteufel

Ingo Mannteufel

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. He managed an extraordinary feat which many political observers considered impossible only a few months ago. Putin gave up his post as Russia's president. But without even changing the constitution, he will remain the central figure in the president's office as prime minister under his political protege, Medvedev. In short: Putin left in order to stay.

Putin made his claim on power clear by allowing himself to be selected as chairman of United Russia, the party which has a two-thirds majority in the Duma. He also made sure to strengthen his position as head of government at the expense of presidential power.

These are clear signals that Putin does not expect to follow in the footsteps of former prime ministers Mikhail Fradkov or Viktor Zubkov, who served as bureaucratic government heads. Putin has already stressed that he sees his role as a "political prime minister" who will actively take part in policy decisions. This will inevitably threaten the president's power.

Risky footing

In recent months, the central message from Putin and Medvedev has been that Russia is entering a new era of "dual power." The "tandem democracy" of Medvedev as president and Putin as head of government is supposed to protect political and economic stability. Both ceaselessly repeated that they are doing it to help further modernize the country.

But it's questionable whether the new double rule of Putin and Medvedev can ensure political stability. In Russian history, "dual power" brings instability. The "dual power" of the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies led to civil war in the revolutionary year of 1917.

The "dual power" of President Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet under the chairmanship of Ruslan Khasbulatov ended in October 1993 with the bombing of the Russian White House, the Supreme Soviet's former headquarters. Coincidentally, the White House on the Moskva River is the current headquarters of the Russian prime minister, which makes it Putin's future office.

Secondly, "dual power," or the existence of two "czars" does not fit Russian political culture. Friction between the two power centers seems inevitable, think Khrushchev and Malenkov after Stalin's death or take Gorbachev and his adversary Yegor Ligachev.

Russians will search for political clarity by trying to determine who is the "right" czar.

There is also the question of whether Medvedev is ready to subordinate himself to Prime Minister Putin. At present, Medvedev is still very diplomatic and reserved on this question.

Yet it's important to remember that Medvedev will have complete authority as president. As the president he is commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces and controls the "power ministries" of the army, police and security agencies. Medvedev also has a strong position in relation to the prime minister, who he can dismiss, and to the Duma, which he can dissolve.

On the other side, Prime Minister Putin, with United Russia's two-thirds majority in the Duma can block presidential decrees and through constitutional amendments completely gut the power of the president.

Unclear division of power

At first sight the new "dual power" of Medvedev and Putin can be seen as a specifically Russian form of "checks and balances." But a basic error of this new political construction lies in the fact that the division of power is not implemented between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, but rather as a somewhat unclear division of power within the executive branch.

Crucial for this new power setup would be for Medvedev and Putin to clarify who exactly is Russia's leader. And even more important is to know whether they will both adhere to this arrangement over the long term. If not, stability and continuity will give way to friction and instability.

Ingo Mannteufel is head of the Russian section of DW-RADIO and DW-WORLD.DE. (th)

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