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Will power shift from the Kremlin?

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Moscow

Outgoing President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin guard
The trappings of power visibly surround the president

The outcome of Russia's March presidential election may have always looked predictable, but what happens next is less certain.

To the perennial question "Who rules Russia?" suddenly there are no clear answers.

As things stand, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are expected to more or less swap chairs.

One will move into the Kremlin to become Russia's third president, ostensibly top of the chain of command, father figure to the nation and Russian icon to the outside world.

The other will become prime minister and chair of the cabinet of ministers - a more technocratic role which involves managing the economy - and shouldering the blame when things go wrong.

Who is the boss?

But in this musical-chairs scenario there is an uncomfortable contradiction.

If Mr Medvedev is the protege, how can his political patron abruptly become his junior?

Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Vladimir Putin
His master's voice? Dmitry Medvedev with President Putin

Are we to expect Mr Putin to traipse up to the Kremlin every Monday, as is customary, to make a weekly report to his new boss? Will he hang President Medvedev's portrait on his prime ministerial wall?

And will Mr Putin have to worry that one day he may wake up to find he has been sacked? After all, the Russian constitution allows the president to reshuffle his cabinet whenever he wishes.

Mr Putin rather tetchily pushes aside such queries. He has known Mr Medvedev a long time and relations will be harmonious, he says. And which official portrait he hangs in his office is beside the point - "I don't need to bow to his portrait - there are other ways of building a relationship."

But more significantly, he sounds as though he wants to redefine the relationship between president and prime minister.

"The president is the guarantor of the constitution and sets the main domestic and foreign policy guidelines," he declared in February.

RISE OF A KREMLIN INSIDER
Dmitry Medvedev
1990-95: Consultant to St Petersburg mayor
1999: Kremlin deputy chief of staff
2000: Head of Vladimir Putin's election campaign
2002: Chairman of Gazprom
2003: Putin's chief of staff
2005: First Deputy Prime Minister, in charge of social programmes
2008: Elected Russian president by a landslide vote
"But the highest executive power in the land lies with the government" whose task, he tells us, is not just to oversee the economy and social policy, but "to create conditions to ensure defence and security".

So much for changing jobs - it sounds as though Mr Putin wants to take his with him.

Small wonder, then, that he went to the Nato summit in Romania in April, while the heir apparent was left to sketch out economic prospects for the next four years.

Do not be surprised if the retiring president announces he will not be moving across town to join the rest of the government in the so-called Bely Dom (White House), but wants to keep his office in the Kremlin.

Power struggles

So will it work? Historical precedents are not encouraging.

It is true that in the late 1990s President Boris Yeltsin saw his authority challenged by one of his many prime ministers, as his health waned and his grip on power slackened. But he never lost the power to sack them.

In the Soviet era, it was quite in order for a titular head of state to preside alongside the real power in the land, the Communist Party leader and General Secretary of the Politburo. But it was always clear who was in the driving seat.

Never has Russia been comfortably ruled by two "tsars" at once, each with their own retinue of officials, power bases and spheres of influence. It always means a power struggle that can lead to a messy and even violent confrontation.

That is what happened in 1991, when Boris Yeltsin's young Russian parliament defied the Soviet Kremlin, and again two years later in 1993, when President Yeltsin found himself facing a parliamentary rebellion.

Growing into the job

So will Mr Medvedev accept being the junior partner in all but name?

Well at first, perhaps. His awkward public appearances and stilted speeches suggest a backroom official not yet comfortable with being on show, or with taking big and difficult decisions.

But that was what Mr Putin was like in his first year in office. And look how assertive he became once he had adjusted to wielding power.

An aura of authority always hangs over whoever is king of the Kremlin. The challenge of being head of state in an unwieldy country like Russia means that Mr Medvedev is bound to grow into the job.

He will need to define a style and approach that marks him as different from his predecessor, to win the confidence of the public.

Meanwhile Mr Putin will not only be an ex-president, he will have to carry the can for rising inflation and all the other grumbles that come the way of a Russian prime minister.

Watch the choreography closely. We are in for a fascinating period of political manoeuvering.




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