Putin on a show

No one buffs his image like the Russian PM. Is he planning another run for president?

Putin on a showYou can say this much for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of his public image: it’s not subtle.

The appearance of official photos of the fit and muscular Russian leader strutting around topless in some wilderness locale has become an annual summer event—broken up for variety last year by footage of Putin stalking a Siberian tiger and allegedly saving a television crew from being mauled by shooting the beast with a tranquilizer dart.

In a country where most men don’t live past the age of 60, and where that grim statistic can be explained in large part by rampant alcoholism, Putin’s apparent strength, sobriety, and stability strike a popular chord with Russians. As he celebrates 10 years in the Kremlin this summer—first as prime minister, then as president for eight years, and now as prime minister once again—a poll carried out by the Levada Centre shows that 63 per cent of Russians think it is good for the country that power is concentrated in Putin’s increasingly autocratic hands.

The problem is, regardless of how Russians feel about Putin, it’s not in his hands that power is supposed to be concentrated. Though it’s easy to forget, Putin is no longer Russia’s president and head of state. Officially, he should be subordinate to his one-time protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president last May. Russia’s 1993 constitution forbade Putin from running for a third consecutive term as president, so he endorsed Medvedev, his one-time chief of staff who had never before held elected office. This guaranteed victory for Medvedev, who obligingly appointed Putin as his prime minister.

According to Russia’s constitution, it is the president—Medvedev, not Putin—who shall, among other things, “approve military doctrine” and “determine the guidelines of the internal and foreign policies of the state.” Why, then, during last summer’s brief and bloody war between Russia and its neighbour (and American ally) Georgia, was it Putin who said he twice asked then-U.S. President George W. Bush to intervene? Why does Russian state television still give Putin blanket coverage? Why, for that matter, if Putin’s political career has peaked, does he bother burnishing his public image by posing on horseback with his shirt off?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that the former president is still the most powerful man in Russia, and he intends to stay that way. “It is Putin who is really calling the shots,” says Aurel Braun, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto who has published extensively on Russia and the Soviet Union.

That Putin has managed to remain dominant says a lot about how he controlled the levers of power in Russia while president. Putin spent most of his career in the KGB and its main successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB). His loyalty was unwavering. Once, when asked what he thought of a memoir written by a Russian spy who had defected, he replied: “I don’t read books written by traitors.” In 1998, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin head of the FSB, putting him in charge of Russia’s largest and most powerful spy agency. Putin officially left this position when he became prime minister the following August. But as Putin himself said during his 2000 presidential campaign, in Russia, there is really no such thing as a former spy.

Putin looked after his secret service roots when he became president. Under his guidance, current and former members of the KGB and FSB flooded into leading positions in the country’s political and business elite. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Center for the Study of Elites in Moscow, researched the official biographies of more than 1,000 leading political figures and found that 26 per cent reported service in the KGB or a successor agency. When she included factors such as unexplained gaps in resumés or work in agencies affiliated with the KGB, the possible number of former spies tripled. Former spies are also dominant among Russia’s business elite. Even those without past employment in Russia’s secret service often owe their success to Putin and his allies. The Russian state is heavily involved in industry, meaning there are few truly independent tycoons. This has resulted in a parallel power structure in Russia that didn’t disappear when Putin stepped down.

“They remain powerful and see Putin as the one who will protect their interests,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director for international security studies at Yale University: “Medvedev does not have that background, and that acts as a constraint on Medvedev.”

This does not mean that a power struggle is unfolding between Putin and Medvedev. “There is no sense that there is any rivalry or tension,” says Clifford Gaddy, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution. “From the beginning, it’s been understood that Medvedev is one of a team. He’s never been anything except an ally and protege of Putin. The legitimacy that Medvedev had initially is solely because he was chosen by Putin. Putin could have chosen his horse.”

Mankoff suspects that Putin and Medvedev worked out an arrangement before Putin endorsed Medvedev to ensure the smooth running of the new administration. Early hopes that Medvedev might be more liberal than Putin have faded. Medvedev has “better table manners,” Aurel Braun says, meaning he sometimes takes on the role of the good cop in Russia’s relations with the outside world. But on substantial issues, such as Russia’s still-simmering standoff with Georgia, or its stance toward NATO’s potential expansion, the two think as one. They both believe in a resurgent Russia that is respected and, preferably, feared.

And if an issue were to divide them, Medvedev is in no position to challenge his supposed subordinate. “He has not developed a substantial power base,” says Braun. “Even if Medvedev were a genuine liberal democrat, he hasn’t shown the inclination to acquire the power to challenge Putin. He does not have the political will to push for the kind of network, the kind of power building, that would be necessary.”

This has caused many to think that Medvedev is little more than a placeholder for Putin. Russia’s constitution did not permit Putin to run for a third consecutive term as president—and, to Putin’s credit, he did not try to amend this—but he will be allowed to run again in 2012.

Putin hasn’t ruled this out, but it’s not a sure thing. “I think it will partly be determined by how well the duopoly that you see now works,” says Braun. “There is a tradition going back to Soviet days where you did not need to have the most visible office, or what constitutionally appeared to be the most powerful office, to have the greatest power. So if he finds that he can do all he wants, and the routine work is done by Medvedev, then he might be satisfied with this arrangement.”

For Putin, there are advantages to running a country without being its official head of state. According to a Kremlin insider who spoke to Clifford Gaddy, Putin doesn’t like to drink tea with foreign dignitaries. Now that’s Medvedev’s job.

But what seems clear is that Putin doesn’t intend to let go of the reins. He transformed Russia after the shambling, chaotic, but comparatively democratic presidency of Boris Yeltsin. It’s an ongoing process, and he doesn’t want to see it stalled on another man’s watch.

Putin is also surely aware that Russia will encounter more storms in its immediate future. Its relationship with Georgia remains extremely tense. War may break out again between the two nations, and Putin will not be happy as long as his nemesis, Mikheil Saakashvili, remains president there. Ukraine, a country that was part of the Soviet Union for decades, is tilting toward the West. Putin would like to bring it back into Russia’s orbit. And Russia has still not diversified its economy, leaving it vulnerable to dropping oil prices.

“Putin regards today’s Russia as essentially his project,” says Gaddy. “He didn’t take over from anybody else. He saved Russia, he thinks—and there are some good reasons to agree­—and what has happened since 1999 is thanks to him, and his insights and his brilliance and how he set up a particular kind of system for controlling the whole operation. So what he absolutely doesn’t want is for the whole thing to crumble in the hands of someone who is either not as smart as he is, not as competent as he is, or not as ruthless and powerful.”