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Sestanovich: Putin’s Choice for Next Russian President Seen as ‘Liberal’ for Kremlin

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 11, 2007

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Stephen Sestanovich, CFR’s top Russia expert and a former ambassador-at-large to the states formed after the break-up of the Soviet Union, discusses Vladimir Putin’s choice for a successor, his former chief of staff Dmitri Medvedev. Sestanovich says Medvedev is a relative “liberal” by Kremlin standards, but adds that it is not known how much independence Medvedev will retain.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ended the guessing game on Monday by announcing support for one of his deputy prime ministers, Dmitri Medvedev, as his successor as president when elections are held in March. He seems like a shoo-in to win. First, who is Medvedev? And secondly, what will Putin’s role be in the future?

What we know of Medvedev allows one to feel a certain relief and hope about this choice. After all, Putin didn’t tear up the constitution and announce he was running for a third term. Medvedev is considered by Kremlin standards a liberal. He is not, from all we know, a KGB veteran. That is all positive. On the other hand, what we know of him is that he is a Putin staff guy, who is not considered to have a strong personality. That allows people to worry that he was chosen entirely because he is weak. That might make him easy for Putin to control. His choice really does underscore the confusion we have of where power is going to be located in Russian politics. For weeks now people have been saying that it will be only in Putin’s hands, and that still seems right. But with what form and with what title we don’t know.

What do you think of Medvedev saying he will ask Putin to become prime minister? Are you surprised?

When Putin first mentioned the possibility of becoming prime minister a couple of months ago, many commentators doubted that he would really take the job. They thought it was a subordinate position with too little machismo and glamour, and that it would oblige him to spend more time in the office than he might want. On top of that, Putin himself criticized the idea of making the prime minister more powerful. Medvedev’s statement today—that he’ll ask Putin to take the job—could conceivably be a ruse, but I take it seriously. With all its limitations, the prime minister’s position is more important than the other ones that have been mentioned—like speaker of parliament, or chairman of the United Russia party, not to speak of the non-existent “national leader” role. Moreover, the job is important in other political systems and would make it easy for Putin to keep representing Russia at the G8, for example.

As for the idea that he would turn up his nose at all the drudge work that prime ministers do, that may misread our man. Putin doesn’t seem to mind going to work every day. Remember, that’s what makes him the “un-Yeltsin.”

There are a few other candidates but it’s expected that Medvedev will win a huge majority, right?

The assumption has been that Putin’s endorsement is all that he needs, and I think that is probably right. Certainly Putin’s endorsement and the core of these other parties mean that really the only candidate in the race who’s ever gotten above 15 [percent] or 20 percent will be the Communist Party candidate. The fact that Putin assembled four parties, all of them endorsing Medvedev, suggests that he is not leaving anything to chance. He doesn’t want to have the Just Russia Party, also his creation, a kind of approved and invented opposition, to have its own candidate. I think it would be sort of hard to imagine Medvedev failing to win on the first round.

They have a system that if you don’t win the majority you have to have a second round, a runoff?

That’s right. But Putin has won on the first ballot both times that he has run.

Let’s talk a bit more about Medvedev. We know that he was born in St. Petersburg, as Putin was, and he’s the son of two professors from St. Petersburg University—which was then Leningrad University. So he’s a son of intelligentsia. He was taken in by Putin when Putin was working for the city of St. Petersburg. He has been working for Putin ever since on domestic matters. He’s been charged with the social programs, so he’s really not an expert on foreign policy or defense issues or security issues, right?

That’s right. His real connection to Russia’s relations with the outside world is probably mostly based on the fact that he’s chairman of the board of Gazprom. He was the leader of the Russian delegation to Davos last time around, or maybe it was the time before that—that was his coming out as an international figure. He has presented himself very much as an advocate of Russia’s integration into the world economy. We don’t know a whole lot about his views beyond the very narrow ones that he’s been charged with. But he has said some interesting things. He has raised questions about whether it is good to have the economy dominated by state-owned corporations, at a time when that has really been the dominant trend in Russian political economy.

He has also challenged this slogan that was devised by Putin’s main political adviser, Vladislav Surkov, of “sovereign democracy.” He phrased interesting questions about it. He said: “Having an adjective before democracy isn’t necessarily a good idea. You want to have your democracy straight without suggesting that you’re qualifying it in some way.” He has specifically said, I recall, that emphasizing sovereign democracy implies that there is something different in Russian democracy from the models that are used elsewhere in the world. He wanted to emphasize that he saw Russian democracy as part of the international mainstream, which has not been the theme of Russian politics, still less of Russian electoral politics lately. I suspect Medvedev is entitled to be considered a little more liberal, a little more Western, at least in some of his public statements.

After he is elected, everyone’s going to rush to meet him, I guess.

Everybody will be interested in meeting him, but they won’t be sure exactly whom they're talking to. Are they really talking to the holder of supreme executive power in the Russian political system or not? I would think that for other heads of state and government, there will be the awkwardness of going to Moscow, of meeting with Medvedev, but really wanting to have drinks on the side with Putin to find out what really is going on.

Well, in world politics there are often “titular presidents” who don’t have much power. Sometimes it’s a prime minister, sometimes it’s like in Iran where you have the supreme leader.

You’re right, but Putin has tried to put down these ideas that his successor would be a titular president. He has, for example, opposed the idea to redistribute power and making the prime minister the political leader of the country. He has said that Russia needs her own president.

But Putin’s already said that he wants to have an important role, right?

He has said that, but he has also said until now that he is not prepared to describe in detail how he thinks that role is going to be defined. So we’ve still got a little more to hear from him. Maybe we will hear it from him, maybe we will hear it from Medvedev, but we don’t know when and how those shoes are going to drop.

It’s interesting because the way Putin’s government seems to operate, nothing is left to chance. I suppose that they are working on the details right now, secretly, about what they want to do.

I don’t know. We’re going to find out whether this is something that is already a well-developed plan and they’re just following a script that was written a while ago. Some Russian commentators have already said that this choice was the result of bargaining among the major factions in the Kremlin. If that’s the case, then we will probably read a lot of speculation about who wanted what and how this ended up to be the right result. You know, one possibility that may dampen some of the enthusiasm that people have for Medvedev, the liberal, is that in reality he was the preferred choice of the siloviki, the KGB veterans.  They would rather have him than someone like Sergei Ivanov, the other deputy prime minister, himself a former KGB officer.

To have a softer image to the outside world?

Not necessarily that. It might be that they preferred him because he would be a less formidable figure internally. So we are going to learn a little about what his power base is, if it is something other than just Putin’s personal preference. We may not know that right away, but over time it will be clear how Medvedev intends to organize the government. What will happen to the leaders of the different factions that have flourished under Putin? Will the personnel lineup of the Kremlin be changed or not? Those decisions will give us some indication as to what free hand Medvedev has, who he looks to as his principal adviser, how constrained he is by not only Putin, but by the sort of KGB Inc. model thought of as dominating Russian politics over the past years.

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