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Putin's Presidential Return

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 27, 2011

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Over the weekend, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev announced they plan to switch jobs next March, with Putin running for president and Medvedev becoming prime minister. Though Putin, who was president from 2000-2008, enjoys popularity in Russia, "many people see his return [to the presidency] as a step backwards," says CFR's Stephen Sestanovich. Medvedev is more "committed to a modern state," while Putin is considered "a yesterday's man." The announcement raises questions about the role Medvedev will play going forward and prompted Putin supporter Alexei Kudrin to resign from his finance minister post, possibly showing policy rifts (Reuters) within the regime. Sestanovich says there is "palpable concern" in Washington over the handoff. "Even though everyone knows that Putin has really been in charge since Medvedev became president," he says, "they also remember that when Putin was president, he had a more acerbic approach to dealing with the outside world and no one really wants that to resume."

Any surprises in Medvedev's announcement (MoscowTimes) that he was not going to run for reelection next March, but that Putin should be elected president once more?

Most people were expecting Putin to return to the presidency, but few people anticipated that the announcement would be made this early. Putin's claim that they'd agreed on this entire scenario years ago took a lot of people by surprise. It seems a bit inconsistent with the way they portrayed the leadership deal at the time it was announced in 2007, when Putin nominated Medvedev to succeed him. Putin and Medvedev are at pains to say that they've always told the truth about their understanding.

I think the idea that they had prearranged this from the start was quite a surprise, since some people though Medvedev might run for reelection, right?

Medvedev has given all the signs of wanting to be reelected and is said to have been open about this in private conversation. His public rhetoric even seemed explicitly critical of Putin, and has seemed to make the case that a new approach, presumably [his] approach, was needed to modernize the country. It's possible that what was really agreed to in advance was that Putin could come back if he wanted to. Medvedev may have had the opportunity to persuade Putin that he--Putin--shouldn't run for the presidency again. But if so, he obviously failed to make the case.

Now what will this mean? The U.S.-Russian relationship is obviously a central part of both countries' foreign policy. It was strained under Putin and seems much more relaxed under Medvedev. Do you expect there to be any change in this relationship, with Putin returning as president?

Administration spokesmen are saying that the relationship is based on the two sides' interest, and that it has borne fruit in the past. They hope that the policies will continue to bear fruit, but there is some palpable concern. Even though everyone knows that Putin has really been in charge since Medvedev became president, they also remember that when he was president, he had a more acerbic approach to dealing with the outside world and no one really wants that to resume.

And of course one of the key issues with Putin during the Bush administration was over the NATO missile defense plan that involved installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. That plan was altered under the Obama administration. Is that still an issue?

Even though everyone knows that Putin has really been in charge since Medvedev became president, they also remember that when he was president, he had a more acerbic approach to dealing with the outside world and no one really wants that to resume.

It remains a very contentious issue between the United States and Russia. Medvedev's approach has been to give it a lot of time to let the national security bureaucracies engage with each other to see if they can find a formula that suits everyone. There's been no guarantee that Medvedev would reach an accommodation with the United States on this, and there is no guarantee that he won't, but if you had to describe the general approach of the two sides, you'd say that Putin is more willing to listen to the suspicious and even paranoid views of his military and intelligence advisers, and Medvedev has been more inclined to brush them aside, making the famous comment, "You can't have a foreign policy based on paranoia."

What do you make of the confrontation by long-time Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin with Medvedev (Bloomberg)? Kudrin publicly criticized Medvedev's economic policies and said he would not work with him as prime minister in a new government. Then Medvedev fired him for insubordination.

His refusal to work for Medvedev may be traceable to his own hopes to be prime minister, or to policy disagreements with Medvedev--and with Putin, too, for that matter. But the most interesting possibility is a different one. Earlier this year, Kudrin voiced such strong public criticisms of United Russia [the ruling party of Putin and Medvedev] that he was being pursued by the party Right Cause, a liberal semi-oppositionist group, to be its leader. If Kudrin were now to go into the opposition, it would be one of the most significant Russian political developments in years. It would represent a split in the elite that Putin has been quite good at preventing. Both Putin and Medvedev would have to ask themselves how many people may follow Kudrin.

Within Russia itself, I suppose the announcement of the swap was no tremendous surprise. From what I've read, Putin is the more popular of the two?

I don't think it was a big surprise to anyone. But you need to bear in mind that it was a disappointment for a lot of the liberal, technocratic policymakers. Medvedev is more committed to a modern state in a form that they approve of. Putin seems, by contrast, more of a yesterday's man, and I think that view is widely shared, even among people who respect Putin and have supported him. So even if Putin has higher popularity ratings, many people see his return as a step backwards.

What will Medvedev's role be in the future? Will it be a come-down for him to be prime minister after he's been president?

Of course it will be a come down. The question is, can he actually find a way of using the prime ministership to expand the issues that he has taken a particular interest in? He has said--and Putin has endorsed the idea--that the country needs a lot of modernizing reform. Maybe Medvedev will be able to use the prime ministership in that way. He also knows, of course, that Putin has generally not had a high-profile prime minister when he was president, and Medvedev may be about to enter a phase of political invisibility. But Medvedev continued to say a lot of challenging and provocative things, just over the weekend and at the United Russia convention he said, "United Russia needs a major overhaul," playing not the audience directly in front of him, but the larger one out there that thinks United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves.

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