Will Putin Dump His Prime Minister?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev prepares to represent his country at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Russians are wondering if his days in power are numbered.

For four years, from 2008 through 2011, Russia was a “tandemocracy,” ruled by Medvedev as president and Putin as prime minister. The two traded jobs after the irregularity-laden presidential election of 2012, a move that came as a blow to Medvedev’s supporters, who saw him as a worldly modernizer and had hoped he would run for a second term.

Now, conspiracy theorists in Moscow think Putin might be tiring of the tandem and content to rule alone. His actions, as well as leaks from the Kremlin, suggest mounting dissatisfaction with Medvedev’s team. And veterans of Putin’s cabinets, in a break from tradition, are showing no qualms about publicly criticizing ministers.

Some of the first evidence of dissatisfaction came in September, when Putin reprimanded three ministers in Medvedev’s government -- those of labor, education and regional development -- for failing to implement some of the president’s election promises. Regional Development Minister Oleg Govorun was forced to resign. Later, Putin fired Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov as part of a wide-ranging corruption probe.

Earlier this month, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia reported that the Kremlin was working on an efficiency assessment system for government ministers, and asked unnamed Kremlin officials to rank ministers in order of efficiency. Most received a grade of fair or poor. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were among those deemed excellent.

Medvedev reacted angrily, even though it was just a newspaper story quoting unnamed sources. “Medvedev believes only the president has the right to assess the efficiency of individual government members,” his press secretary said.

The Kremlin was unrepentant. “The published results of a poll of some administration members are subjective,” Putin’s press secretary told the Interfax news agency. “There is, as yet, no official evaluation system for ministers, but it is in fact being designed.”

Commentators assumed the Izvestia piece was no accident. “I believe this was a leak intended to influence the situation,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov told the website actualcomments.ru. “The publication of such rankings is a sign of future personnel changes.”

On Jan. 18, two veteran insiders -- both of whom served in the government when Putin was prime minister -- voiced harsh criticism of current cabinet members at an economic forum in Moscow. Ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin voiced doubt that the current cabinet’s policy is conducive to economic growth, and former economics minister German Gref accused ministers of “not having spent even an hour” studying the rules of the World Trade Organization, which Russia has recently joined.

Even the parliament, a notorious rubber stamp for the Kremlin’s legislative proposals, “has started ignoring the government’s comments on bills,” the influential daily Vedomosti wrote in an editorial. “Such an attitude toward the government could mean either of two things: that everyone knows the cabinet’s days are numbered, or that everyone is aware this is a scapegoat cabinet.”

In a more transparent political system, all the speculation might be discounted as noise generated in overly sensitive newsrooms. But after 13 years of Putin in power, experienced insiders are skilled at interpreting the signals.

One of the most experienced, former intelligence chief and ex-prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, said bluntly earlier this month that the system of dual power was dead. “In practical and legal terms, there is only one head of state in Russia, Putin,” Interfax quoted him as saying at the exclusive Mercury Club. “The prospect of obligatory rotation of the two leaders has ceased to exist, and that should help make the country more democratic.”

In other words, Medvedev’s tenure as prime minister is not necessarily drawing to a close, but he is no longer the only credible successor to Putin if and when the president does relax his grip on power.

On the surface, Primakov’s suggestion of “more democracy” seems counterintuitive. Hadn’t the wily old politician just said that Putin was now alone at the summit? Yet there is a certain logic to Primakov’s pronouncement: Putin’s presidential term ends in five years, and if the succession contest is already open, the political system may indeed become more competitive, albeit in a peculiarly Russian way.

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To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net