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Putin and Medvedev: Teammates or Rivals?

Vladimir Putin’s decision to serve as prime minister should Dmitri Medvedev become Russia’s next president has made their electoral success in March a virtual certainty. Although the Communist Party’s leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, and the Liberal Democrats’ Vladimir Zhirinovsky are running – in contrast to 2004, when they fielded stand-ins – neither will get more than 15% of the vote. Even assuming that Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov, and Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov somehow collect two million signatures each to get on the ballot, the outcome will be the same. Indeed, so far, none of them has more than 2% popular support.

But, while Medvedev’s victory in the first round of voting appears assured, the important questions will arise after the ballots are counted. How will power be distributed between Medvedev and Putin? Who will be in charge? Will Russia have to rewrite its laws and Constitution to give the prime minister more official power? Is Putin risking his political future by accepting a formally secondary role and making himself accountable for all socio-economic policy?

Russia’s Constitution does not allow for a “technical presidency.” The head of state has extensive powers, which alone indicates that Medvedev will be a strong president. Moreover, Medvedev is a strong-willed politician and very experienced administrator.

But Putin will be a strong prime minister, if only because he’s Putin. He is set to remain the most popular person in Russia for a long time to come. That implies a system of governance with at least two decision-making centers – perhaps in addition to United Russia, the party of Putin and Medvedev, which won 64% of the vote in the recent parliamentary election up from 37% in 2003. All this represents obvious progress from the standpoint of the separation of powers.