Putin’s man gets Putin’s job

The beauty of Russia’s political system is that you do not need an election to know the name of the next president. No primaries, no caucuses, no real campaigning and fundamentally no choice. Russia’s next president was announced this week by the current one. He will be the First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Formally, his candidacy for the presidential elections on March 2 next year was announced by four parties, two of which won the majority of seats in the recent parliamentary elections. In reality, Vladimir Putin’s public endorsement ended all debate. He said he had known him very closely for more than 17 years and he completely supported him.

Next week United Russia will endorse Medvedev as the party’s candidate and next year the Russian electorate will vote him in, no matter how many candidates run against him. Presidents are not elected in Russia. They are acclaimed. Once Putin made his choice, all the rest of Russia has to do is bone up on their next leader.

He is 42, a former lawyer from St Petersburg who has worked for Putin for almost all of his adult life. This means two things. Medvedev’s meteoric rise to power from humble lawyer to head of Russia’s largest company Gazprom, is due solely to his boss and he remains completely dependent on him. This in turn ensures Medvedev’s unswerving loyalty.

Some political observers in Moscow think that Putin is taking a risk by appointing even his closest friend as successor, such is the power wielded by the presidency. If that is the case, Putin minimised those risks by selecting Medvedev. He has said and done little on his own. It is debatable whether even Gazprom’s threats to cut gas supplies to Ukraine and Belarus were his alone. As deputy minister he has been put in charge of four projects to reform the health services, education, community services and agriculture. But he remains relatively unknown outside the Kremlin. His first task as prince regent will be to change that.

Western governments will breathe a sigh of relief that Medvedev is not a former member of the KGB and does not belong to that other clan competing for power in the Kremlin, the siloviki, linked to the security services.

But this does not mean that their star, represented by the former defence minister Sergei Ivanov, has faded. No one knows what job Putin will choose for himself after he leaves office. By picking a loyalist, Putin has given himself room for manoeuvre. He could reverse his decision if things go wrong with the economy. Medvedev would resign and fresh elections would be held. Putin may be leaving the presidency but he is not leaving power. —

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