Putin leaves tough jobs to Medvedev in their switch, analysts say

By positioning himself to regain the presidency next year and perhaps hold the job well into the next decade, analysts say, Vladimir Putin is placing himself above what many Russians expect to be a dirty campaign for parliament this fall and tough economic reforms to follow.

His protege, current President Dmitry Medvedev, not so much.

Their announcement at a congress of the ruling United Russia party that the two leaders would switch positions allows Putin to protect his image as a populist and a strong leader. Medvedev takes on some tricky political and policy problems, which could prove his political undoing.


“Putin handed Medvedev a suitcase without a handle, labeled United Russia,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a senior political researcher at the Institute of Geography. “He can’t carry it because it’s too heavy, and can’t afford to drop it because it now contains all his political wealth.”

Putin has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, the first eight years as president. When he had to leave the office in 2008 because of term limits, he engineered the election of Medvedev. Putin moved over to the prime minister’s job, but was still considered the strongest figure in Russia.

As part of their switch, Putin will run for president again next year, this time for a six-year term to which he could be reelected. And it will be Medvedev, not Putin, who leads United Russia into this fall’s parliamentary elections.

By pressuring political opponents, and in some cases refusing to register opposition parties, the Kremlin has ensured that United Russia will not face a serious challenge in either vote. But a series of recent public opinion polls illustrate the difficulties Medvedev will have to navigate.

United Russia has been losing popularity. The government-controlled VTsIOM public opinion agency registered a drop of three percentage points in public support, from 44% to 41%, in September.

A July survey by the influential independent Levada agency found that 54% of respondents believed the parliamentary campaign would be dirty and the elections fixed; 55% said they had gotten tired of waiting for improvements in their lives under Putin.

Earlier in the summer the same agency asked Russians whether they agreed with blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny that United Russia was “a party of swindlers and thieves.” A third of respondents said yes.

United Russia’s membership is thought to be quite small, mainly consisting of officials and bureaucrats tied to the power structure. Putin has launched a broader movement called the All-Russia Popular Front, which is envisioned as an umbrella organization of individuals, unions, various associations and other parties that could take the place of United Russia. But the hastily assembled movement won’t be much help this fall.

“By choosing to change places in such a shockingly cynical and defiant manner, our leaders showed an outrageous disregard for the people and their constitutional right of a free vote,” said Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for Globalization Studies, a Moscow-based think tank. “I won’t be surprised if the turnout in the coming elections will be so close to zero that the election commissions will be hard put to even fake the results in the slightest convincing way.”

United Russia lawmaker Sergei Markov said such comments overstated the party’s problems.

“Despite the fact that many people believe that our elections are not completely fair, they will take part in them and support the party and Putin because there is no political alternative to Putin and the United Russia in our country,” he said.

As prime minister, Medvedev will also become the party’s point man on some serious economic problems.

Analysts said Putin had promised the job to the widely respected finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, but had to renege to close the deal with Medvedev. Then, Medvedev fired Kudrin for questioning the plan at a televised government meeting.

Medvedev has promised to shake up the government, telling interviewers from three federal television networks on Friday that “it will become a radically changed government, which will consist of new people.”

Experts say the government will face budget problems by the middle of next year because of a deficit caused by a slight-but-steady drop in oil prices. The oil and gas sector is said to account for up to half of government income.

In addition, Kudrin predicted before leaving office that capital flight will exceed $35 billion this year, an expression of doubt about Russia’s long-term prospects.

“The government will be obligated to dramatically cut social spending, as it seems incapable of preventing corruption at all levels of the bureaucratic machine that drains the budget bare,” said Delyagin, an economist and a government advisor during Putin’s first presidential term.

There may be a need for a fall guy, he said. “That is Medvedev, who will head the government if he politically survives this winter.”