WASHINGTON--How ironic that the only way for Dmitry Medvedev, the new president of the Russian Federation, to liberate himself from the grip of Vladimir Putin, would be to do the same thing that Putin did when he was chosen as Boris Yeltsin's heir--stage a political coup against his former master.
Of course, Putin's and Medvedev's backgrounds and personalities are very different. The Putin chosen by Yeltsin and his entourage--including Yeltsin's daughter and oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich--was a product of the Soviet-era security services and someone whose relationship with liberal democracy was casual at best. Medvedev is a soft-spoken jurist who calls himself a "liberal" and has spent his years managing state companies.
However, Russia's hope of moving toward a more open, pluralistic, and decentralized political system resides in Medvedev's hypothetical ability to ruthlessly use the power of the presidency to purge Putin and his cronies. Russia's outgoing president knows this perfectly well, which is why he announced months ago that he would serve as prime minister in Medvedev's administration. Without a real political post to give him power over the military and the secret police, Putin would be vulnerable to Medvedev's potential betrayal.
It says a lot about today's Russia that one should be talking about the Kremlin's intricate power plays in the way that observers used to talk about the Soviet era. As Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center recalls, the people in the Politburo who selected Nikita Khrushchev to be the head of the Soviet Union in the 1950s thought he would be a weakling who they would easily manipulate; he ended up exposing Stalin's crimes. Those who picked Leonid Brezhnev in the 1960s thought, naively, that his role would be transitory.
Putin understood early on in his presidency that he needed to bring into the government competing groups in order to preserve his own power and play one against the other when it came to dictating the succession. Those groups were basically three: Putin's spy friends, a few free-market technocrats, and the pragmatists, one of whom was Medvedev. Now, Putin's aim is clearly to emasculate the new president by having him surrounded with competing groups rather than one sole clan that Medvedev could make his own.
At this point, no one can predict if Medvedev will become his own man or much less whether something resembling liberal democracy under the rule of law will emerge from his election. Given Russia's tradition and the power of the presidency vested in the constitution, it is conceivable that Medvedev will eventually wiggle out of Putin's corset. What is more unlikely is what really matters--changing the nature of the system. For that, Medvedev would need to rein in the military and the security forces, allow opposition parties like Garry Kasparov's Other Russia to flourish, give the media its independence and privatize the mammoth oil and gas complex, including Gazprom, the gas monopoly, and Rosneft, the oil firm that gobbled up Yukos, whose owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sent to a Siberian prison because he challenged Putin's rule.
A number of factors have helped Putin take Russia back to the czarist tradition of autocracy in alliance with the Orthodox Church. One of them is the economic success of the last decade. Thanks to the relative opening up of the economy in the 1990s, the growing Chinese demand for commodities and, yes, Moscow's fiscal discipline under Putin, the country now produces almost $1 trillion a year in goods and services. The average salary has gone up by a factor of seven, to $600 a month, and poverty has been reduced by one-half.
Were it not for the economic bonanza, Putin's other achievements in the eyes of many Russians--his nationalistic foreign policy, his brutal tactics in Chechnya--would probably not have been enough to help him consolidate a personal dictatorship.
Medvedev will need to preserve Russia's economic boom if he wants to marginalize his old boss. If he wants to be remembered as something more than another corrupt tyrant, he will also need to start chipping away at his own power as well as that of the prime minister so that his country's institutions begin to rule above men.
Extremely unlikely, but not impossible.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of Liberty for Latin America, is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa