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April 13, 2011

Russia’s Ruling Party Chief Favors Putin for President

by James Brooke

Russia’s ruling party is signaling that it wants Vladimir Putin to be its candidate for president.

The race for Russia’s presidency broke out into the open Thursday when United Russia chief Yuri Shuvalov pegged Mr. Putin as the party’s choice for presidential elections next March.

After three years of harmony, political ambitions now strain the relationship between Russia’s two leaders - Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

On Tuesday, President Medvedev seemed to turn against his mentor, Mr. Putin, in an interview with Chinese state television.

"We need to change. We need to modernize economic and social life and political system. New people need to come. New politicians need to come," Mr. Medvedev said.

He ended the interview saying that a decision on the official presidential candidate should be made soon.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Putin responded by asking everyone to tone down the rhetoric:

He warned that "there is almost a year until elections and all this fuss does not contribute to a normal working structure."

For the past decade, Mr. Putin has held the post of president or prime minister of Russia. Drawing on this political experience, he warned of the lame duck phenomenon - where power drains away from an official who prematurely announces retirement.

He said that if clear signals are sent too early about candidacies, "half the administration and a large half of the government will stop working in anticipation of some kind of changes."

In the last three weeks, President Medvedev aggressively carved out an independent stance. He bluntly dismissed as "unacceptable" Prime Minister Putin’s criticism of Russia’s Libya policy. Then he announced that high government officials will no longer sit on state company boards. As a result, Igor Sechin, right hand man to Mr. Putin, stepped down on Monday as chairman of Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company.

The stakes are high. Whoever wins next March will run Russia through 2018. A second term would bring this leader to 2024. Given state controls on the press and on political activity, there is not expected to be a viable third candidate.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, a research firm, believes that it would be too much of a risk for Vladimir Putin to allow Dmitry Medvedev a second term as president.

"Six more years of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency means build-up of his political power," he said.

Both men enjoy high approval ratings: 69 percent for Prime Minister Putin and 66 percent for President Medvedev. These have dipped slightly over the last year, but are still higher than the electoral performance for United Russia. In regional elections last month, the ruling party won 46 percent of votes cast.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst close to the Kremlin,  said that both men see themselves as candidates with good prospects for winning. He believes that Mr. Medvedev has the power of the incumbency:

"If Putin wants to fight for the office, he has to offer something extraordinary," Pavlovsky said.

With the race to power beginning to heat up, analysts may have to sharpen their skills in an old Soviet era art: Kremlinology.