A Power Struggle in Russia?

Pop quiz: Name the man who has control of Russia's armed forces and interior security forces; participates in formulating and implementing foreign policy and makes proposals for coordinating the work of federal and regional executive bodies in national emergencies; monitors budgetary spending for defense, national security, and law enforcement (one-fourth of the national budget); and is charged with controlling the government by analyzing a consolidated annual report on its main activities and results.

Did you say career KGB spy Vladimir Putin Nikolai Patrushev?  Congratulations!  You have now qualified as an expert on Russia.

As of May 2011, via decree of Russian "president" Dmitri Medvedev, all of this authority was transferred from Medvedev to the National Security Council of Russia, of which Petrushev is secretary (and therefore, as per Russian mores, autocrat).  Wikipedia has not caught up with the change yet, nor has Agentura.ru, which is supposed to specialize in such matters.  The Obama administration, as always, remains oblivious.

Now for the bonus question, the one that separates the experts from the geniuses: Why did Medvedev do it?

Before answering that, you might well wonder how he even could.  You might remember that Russia has a Constitution, one which undoubtedly vests all that power in an elected official.  In the United States, the president actually sits on the Security Council, and even if he didn't it is hard to imagine how it could be legal for Barack Obama to delegate his role as "commander in chief" to something like, say, the Federal Reserve.

But in Vladimir Putin's Russia, the Constitution is just a piece of paper.  Russia has states with local governments just like America does, and the governors of those states are supposed to be elected.  But they're not.  By presidential decree of Vladimir Putin they are appointed by the president.  Russia has senators, who are also supposed to be elected.  Again since the advent of Putin, they are appointed.

Russia is supposed to have freedom of the press, yet all major national broadcast TV network are owned and operated by the Kremlin.

It is supposed to have jury trials.  It doesn't.  It is not supposed to have double-jeopardy.  It does.  The state is not supposed to directly control political parties, but it doesn't think twice about doing so.

In other words, Medvedev can do pretty much anything he likes, as long as Putin says it's OK.

Now back to the question: Why would Medvedev transfer away so much power?

At the time, Russian defense policy expert Aleksandr Golts suggested that the move could have been part of a putsch.  He pointed out that it would be insane to leave this much power in Patrushev's hands for very long, since he had been forced out as head of the KGB during an unseemly public battle with another agency head and had then stated "that Russia's military doctrine would spell out rules for using nuclear weapons in local conflicts and that Moscow was prepared to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike if necessary."  Golts suggested that Patrushev might be kicked out and replaced with a puppet of Putin, perhaps even someone Putin would use to replace Medvedev in fear that his successor was getting too full of himself.

But two months have now passed since then, and Patrushev is still standing. 

The fact that Patrushev is still in place makes two alternative hypotheses a bit more credible.

The first is that Putin himself intends to replace Patrushev.  Under such a scenario he could leave Medvedev as president and even step down as prime minister, while at the same time grabbing even more power plus a whole new level of camouflage and secrecy.  This would permit him to dupe gullible fools like Obama into even more craven acts of facilitation as Putin seeks to ring down a new iron curtain.

But would Putin really take up a position whose authority is based entirely on a presidential decree, and thus could be stripped away with the stroke of a pen?  Doing so would imply that Putin had coopted the Constitution fully, and believed he could control the entire Russian governmental apparatus permanently from behind the scenes, regardless of any law, an astounding and unprecedented event in modern world history.

The other hypothesis, according to Golts, is this:

It is also possible that Medvedev gave new powers to the Security Council in response to Putin's maneuver of forming the People's Front, as a way to score points before his decisive conversation with the prime minister.  It is also telling that, having signed the new decree, Medvedev found the courage to threaten the siloviki responsible for failed defense contracts.  He essentially told them, "You should understand that at another time half of the people present would have been sent to the labor camps."  That gave Putin appointees something to think about.

The "People's Front" is a new political party created by Putin to establish his own independent power base, and Putin has used numerous illegal means to inflate its membership.

But what did Medvedev want Putin appointees to think?  Medvedev has openly said he won't challenge Putin if Putin wants to take back the presidency, and Medvedev has done absolutely nothing to show he is his own man.  So if Medvedev is making a gambit, his reason could only be to gather bargaining chips he can use to maximize the size and style of his golden parachute when he leaves office should Putin decide he must go.

And indeed, Medvedev recently told reporters when asked if he would run for reelection: "I ask you for a little more patience for just a little while. I will tell you about everything that I will do -- whether I will be president or find some other work for myself."  It sounded very much like Medvedev was himself waiting to be told what he'd be doing, and already had some sense that he'd be shown the door.

He might be wise to go while the getting is good.  In recent days, a stunning series of statements predicting that a Russia ruled by Putin as "president for life" would soon come to resemble an African dictatorship has been made.  First oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov compared such a Russia to Egypt and Putin to Mubarak.  Then fellow oligarch Alexander Lebedev said a better analogy would be like Zimbabwe and Mugabe.  Finally former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev joined in as well.

Helicopters and planes are dropping out of the air, and boats are sinking.  Russia has the ninth-highest murder rate on this planet, higher than any other major industrialized nation.  No other nation in the world has a higher divorce rate.  Only four nations drink more alcohol.  By contrast, Russia doesn't even rank in the top 100 nations of the world for life expectancy.  If a person showed this kind of absolute, grim, and dismal failure, a psychiatrist would no doubt classify him as a suicide risk.  Indeed, Russia seems to be, for all the world, an entire nation hell-bent on suicide -- and only five countries on this planet have people more likely to commit suicide than Russians.

Some naïve observers still foolishly cling to the belief that Medvedev is a reformer who intends to reverse the worst abuses of the Putin years.  But he has done nothing tangible during his first term in this regard, and if Medvedev is prepared to allow nearly unlimited power to rest in the hands of a maniac like Patrushev for nearly a year just so that he can squeeze a few extra bucks into his 401K, then Russia would be no better off under him.