The Race to Be Putin’s Next Prime Minister Is Heating Up

How can Vladimir Putin avoid the political fallout that will inevitably come from firing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev? Facing corruption allegations and losing support within the government, Medvedev is quickly becoming a “suitcase without a handle” for Putin.

Presidential elections will be held in Russia in one year, and already there’s little question about the outcome: Vladimir Putin will enjoy a resounding victory. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s job, however, is far less secure, and in the lead-up to the election, Putin will have to make a decision about whether or not to bring Medvedev with him into his fourth term.

The competition for the prime ministership—and for the control over the country’s economic future that comes with the job—is already kicking into high gear, all the more so after the anti-corruption protests that took place across Russia on March 26. The opposition is fast making corruption the central theme of the 2018 election, and many activists are pointing the finger directly at Dmitry Medvedev. This is creating a surprising anti-Medvedev coalition made up of the opposition and large swaths of the political elite.

Both the regime and the opposition know that a political showdown is coming. In Putin’s last term, the ruling elite will either enter a period of decline or be forced to transform into something completely new. Combined with the decline in support for the regime, which had peaked after the annexation of Crimea, and the deterioration of the country’s socioeconomic conditions, the recent protests are already prompting various groups to fight for future political influence.

Everyone senses a new perestroika coming, making it crucial to seize the initiative now.

The recent protests were sparked by an investigation into corruption among high-ranking members of the Putin regime—chiefly, Medvedev—published by opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Paradoxically, because of the investigation’s revelations and subsequent protests, Putin has no choice but to stick with Medvedev for now—he cannot be seen as making a personnel decision based on pressure from below.

Still, the protests are turning up the heat on the regime. And indeed, the question of whether Medvedev will be dismissed is turning into a question of when he will be dismissed. Will it be a few months ahead of the election; right before voting day, as was the case with Putin’s dissolution of the Mikhail Kasyanov cabinet in 2004; or shortly after the election?

In some ways, this fall would be the optimal time to form a new cabinet because it would give Putin enough time to rebrand the government before the election. This is why the anti-Medvedev coalition is strengthening inside the government: to compel the president to throw Medvedev under the proverbial bus in the hope of maximizing short-term political dividends.

Thus, Putin faces a dilemma: how does he avoid the political fallout that will inevitably come from firing Medvedev, who is both one of the chief ideologists of the president’s 2018 campaign and the formal leader of Putin’s United Russia party? Medvedev is quickly becoming a “suitcase without a handle” for Putin.

If Medvedev is able to prove himself worthy by playing a significant role in shaping Putin’s campaign platform, it would be difficult to dismiss him—particularly before the election. But the scenario in which Medvedev keeps his post appears to be as improbable as it is desirable—particularly for businessmen and for liberals.

Much ink has been spilled over why Putin’s Russia cannot liberalize: the Kremlin lacks the political will for reforms; Putin does not trust liberals, who are seen as the ideological allies of the West; Putin is not willing to give the government autonomy; and he fears liberal (i.e., socially unpopular) reforms. All of this is true, but there is one important caveat: Vladimir Putin remains convinced that he is Russia’s main liberal reformer, making the question of why he needs help from other reformers a rhetorical one.

System liberals like Alexey Kudrin and German Gref are respected advisers to Putin whom the president calls on whenever he needs an alternative expert assessment. They are, in fact, the only group with anything close to an ideological monopoly on the formulation of the financial and economic components of Vladimir Putin’s government.

Maintaining a high key interest rate, trying to reduce the budget deficit, reforming healthcare and education, targeting inflation, and rejecting regulated interest rates in the real sector—all of these liberal initiatives are “red lines” drawn by the so-called “party of stability,” or those who favor macroeconomic stability over economic growth.

Whereas the system liberals have something of a coherent political philosophy, the dirigiste faction is focused entirely on political administration. The former group is looking for ways to liberalize Russia’s political and economic system, while the latter group hopes to pursue stricter regulation.

One representative of the dirigiste faction is state business ombudsman and Party of Growth leader Boris Titov, who on March 1 presented the final draft of the Stolypin Club’s “Growth Strategy” program. The main agenda of the Growth Strategy includes considerable relaxation of monetary and credit policy, harsher currency regulation, and the use of sovereign reserve funds to prop up the real sector.

Titov’s program is a major project that has been in the works for several years and focuses above all on the interests of the “real sector,” which seeks expanded access to state resources despite Western sanctions and economic stagnation. This lobby likely has its own favored candidate for the prime minister’s seat: Andrey Belousov, who has become particularly active recently in discussions about economic strategy and is the man behind Titov’s proposals.

The easiest solution to the “2018 quandary” would be to appoint a “technical” prime minister. It would be psychologically much easier to dump Medvedev, who would be less offended if he were replaced by a minor, obscure bureaucrat rather than by a longtime rival or ideological opponent.

Appointing a technical prime minister would also be in line with the recent state personnel trend: replacing political heavyweights with young technocrats. Putin likes working with individuals who see themselves not as “friends” or “comrades in arms,” but as loyal foot soldiers who do what they are told without asking unnecessary questions or taking advantage of their proximity to power.

Finally, a technical prime minister would free Putin from having to choose among ideologists of various strategies (liberal or dirigiste, populist or reformist). A technical prime minister would eliminate the need to debate development strategy, allowing the president to govern tactically, based on circumstances—the style of governance that Putin prefers.

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