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Analysis & Opinion
27.09.11 (Lame) Duck Hunting
By Dan Peleschuk

While the long-awaited news has finally broken, there remain some unanswered questions about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s inevitable return to the presidency. Foremost among them: what will happen now to President Dmitry Medvedev? Rumors circulated that the Kremlin’s effort to keep silent on a candidacy announcement was meant to prevent Medvedev from becoming a lame duck, but it seems as though that prospect is all but inevitable. Officially, Medvedev has been slated to replace Putin at his current post as prime minister, but unofficially, analysts say he should prepare for a backseat role like never before – one which he may already be assuming.

Though many had expected the outcome of United Russia’s party congress last weekend, some seemed genuinely fooled by the ruling tandem’s carefully orchestrated public balance of power. Much of the Russian blogosphere, especially, took the announcement as a punch to the gut. Yet Putin’s curiously frank statement at the congress that the decision was made long ago shed light on the now-indisputable fact that Medvedev had been a lame duck from the outset.

And as the media rushes to analyze another 12 years of Putin, observers look back at the signs that now, after the fact, seem particularly telling of Medvedev’s position within the ruling tandem. Moscow Carnegie Center expert Nikolai Petrov pointed to hints of Medvedev’s weakness on display as early as last June at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, when he outlined an ambitious five-point modernization plan. “His speech there looked more like the speech of a president who was leaving from his position, but who intended to be remembered as a real modernizer who didn’t manage to realize all his plans,” said Petrov. “It was just the beginning of his resignation not only from the position of president, but from real politics as well.”

If Medvedev does manage to retain a meaningful role in high politics, his next potential job as prime minister will surely be bereft all its erstwhile glory, analysts say. Putin’s disproportionate amount of control in that position merely reflects the influence of the individual over the institution in Russian politics. According to Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Medvedev – if he indeed assumes the premiership – will likely take on the role of a “fall guy” designed to catch the blame for any unpopular moves taken in the future by Putin.

Other observers also foresee Medvedev’s relegation to a largely ceremonial and thankless position. Referring to Medvedev’s performance at the United Russia congress, former Kremlin Advisor Gleb Pavlosky told Kommersant FM radio, “…the whole image seemed somehow humiliating, even visually. He probably should not have been smiling while his own prime minister turned him into another Viktor Zubkov.” (Zubkov, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2008, was known to be unquestionably loyal – if not somewhat anonymous – and was pushed aside when Putin became prime minister in 2008).

As if Medvedev’s cheerful, yet transparent charade at the congress wasn’t humiliating enough, what followed shortly after only added to the post-announcement hysteria. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s recent announcement that he refused to continue his work under a Medvedev Cabinet added insult to injury just after the president had been publicly demoted. Medvedev’s response, though predictably terse, seemed to reflect the frustration of the moment: “You can consult with whomever you like, including the prime minister,” he told Kudrin on Monday, RIA Novosti reported. “But while I am still president, I make these decisions myself.”

The Kudrin affair, Petrov said, reflected much of the efforts taken by Medvedev throughout his tenure to project the image of a confident and composed leader in his own right. Yet the moment Putin’s candidacy was made public, he added, Medvedev’s image turned from that of a member of a tandem – however instrumental – to “a glove puppet and nothing more.” “In this conflict, he looked like a child who was crying and trying to show everybody that it’s him who is the real master in of the house,” he said. “But instead of gaining the features of a decisive, rough, and real president, I think it only added to his image as an unstable and emotional person who is playing the role staged by somebody else, and who is very uncomfortable playing this role.”
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