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Putin Offered Key Role in Likely Successor’s Government

December 11, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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Dmitry Medvedev, the man tapped as the likely successor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, offered the outgoing president a role in his government as prime minister once Putin is constitutionally required to step down in the spring.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, politics in Moscow, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Russian President Vladimir Putin will be leaving office next March, but he may not be going far. Yesterday, Putin publicly endorsed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to be his successor. Today, Medvedev said if he wins the March election he would appoint Putin as prime minister.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia: I think it is crucial for our country to keep Vladimir Putin in the most important role in the executive branch, that of prime minister.

MARGARET WARNER: That means Putin would retain significant power in the Russian government. That’s especially true, since the pro-Putin United Russia Party swept the elections for the Duma, or legislature, 10 days ago. It captured 315 of the 450 seats.

Putin said yesterday that Medvedev’s election would ensure stability.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): We have the chance to form a stable government after the elections in March 2008, and not just a stable government, but one that will carry out the course that has brought results for all of the past eight years.

MARGARET WARNER: The 42-two-year-old Medvedev is a native of St. Petersburg. As first deputy prime minister, he doled out social spending from Russia’s enormous windfall profits from its oil and gas businesses. He has represented Russia at international economic forums, but unlike Putin has no background in the security services. He’s also never held elective office.

Since 2002, Medvedev has been chairman of the board of the state-run natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. Russia has the largest proven reserves of natural gas on Earth, and Gazprom is the world’s largest supplier. It has used that power to raise prices and even choke off supplies to former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, in political disputes with Moscow.

Russia’s presidential election is scheduled for early next March. The constitution bars Putin from seeking a third consecutive term.

So what does this political maneuver on Vladimir Putin’s part mean for Russia and for Putin’s continuing power there? For that, we turn to a former Moscow correspondent who interviewed President Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, last spring.

Paul Starobin is a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly and staff correspondent for the National Journal. He was Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek magazine from 1999 to 2003.

And, Paul, welcome.

PAUL STAROBIN, The Atlantic Monthly: Thanks, Margaret.

Putin's continuing influence

MARGARET WARNER: So this one-two move on Putin's part, does this essentially mean that the Putin era will continue?

PAUL STAROBIN: Absolutely. This is the consolidation of the Putin era. And it will continue. Yes, it will.

MARGARET WARNER: And explain, though, actually how that would work, because Putin has spent a lot of time really beefing up the powers of this presidency. If he were to become prime minister -- and we should note he has not formally accepted that position yet...

PAUL STAROBIN: That's right, not formally.

MARGARET WARNER: ... would the constitution have to be changed to give him the kind of authority he has now?

PAUL STAROBIN: I don't think so. The constitution is in place. It enables somebody to become president after Putin. Presumably Medvedev will win his election in March.

If Putin accepts the invitation, becomes prime minister, I mean, the prime minister role has been a relatively weak one. He's sort of the chairman of the board of the government as kind of the administrative role, but this is rather informal.

I mean, we're talking about Vladimir Putin, enormously popular in Russia. If he is prime minister, he will still be "the man" in Russian politics, no doubt about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Head of Team Putin?

PAUL STAROBIN: Head of Team Putin. I see these guys as part of the team. They're sitting around a table. Now we're getting a little bit of a deck reshuffling of the chairs, but that team is in place, and that team is not changing. It is not being dislodged.

Profiling Medvedev

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now tell us about Medvedev. First of all, how close are his ties to Vladimir Putin, of how much longstanding?

PAUL STAROBIN: Well, there are close ties. There's a bit of a generational difference. I mean, Medvedev, now 42; Putin is about 12 years older. Some have talked a little bit about a father-son relationship. That's probably overdoing it, but there is a kind of protege aspect.

Medvedev worked for Putin when Putin was a kind of deputy mayor in the St. Petersburg office. He is from St. Petersburg, as well. He's a lawyer. He was advising Putin. When Putin went to Moscow at the end of 1999, Medvedev was one of the people he brought with him. That tells you something right there.

He managed Putin's first presidential campaign in 2000. He's had an escalating sort of series of jobs with more responsibility in the Kremlin itself. This shows that this is a man who Vladimir Putin trusts.

Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB colonel. He's not a man who trusts a great number of people. He trusts Dmitry Medvedev.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, does Medvedev have any leanings at all? I mean, you've interviewed him.

PAUL STAROBIN: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you learn about him? And if he has any independent leanings, what are they?

PAUL STAROBIN: Well, the first thing I learned about him is that he's quite small. He may be 5'5" tall. I mean, he comes at you and you thought, "Wow, this is kind of a small figure."

Putin is not that tall. And I wondered, "Hmm, interesting that we have" -- you know, he can almost be like a Russian nesting doll or something.

So he doesn't project a large presence, a large physical presence, not terribly animated, either, rather kind of technocratic, you know, careful in the way he sort of fields questions. Intelligent, clearly. You know, he's operating at a high level of competence. Energetic, I mean, you know, part of that younger generation.

He's been pegged as kind of an economic liberal, in Kremlin terms. I'm not sure that that means that much, Margaret. I see him as part of the team. He's very typically Russian, in the sense that he believes in a kind of control orientation.

You know, he drew for me a diagram, which was of a triangle showing how the governing elite, the business elite, and the intelligentsia, as he called it, each at a corner of the triangle, has to be in harmony in order for things to operate in Russia, in order for things not to break down.

So this is not a kind of checks-and-balances way of looking at things. This is like, "We're all in the same ship, you know, rowing together." That's his mentality.

MARGARET WARNER: And so if people thought that any kind of change at the top would mean a loosening of some of these restrictions on media, on any kind of independent civic institutions, civil society, political society, this guy would not be the instrument of that?

PAUL STAROBIN: I don't think it would start off that way. In fact, if anything, he may need to show that he's tough, because he's not part of what is called this Selviki group (ph) of the ex-KGB agents around Putin. So he may have to show, in fact, that he's a tough guy.

Now, if the perception inside the Kremlin of the threat, you know, domestic opponents and so far, you know, sort of eases, he may feel -- he may do some of those things. He doesn't necessarily have the instincts of somebody who wants to rule as a czar. I mean, that is conceivable; I wouldn't look for it right away, though.

Economic policy

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you said, he's known as a technocrat. He also has an economic background. What are his economic leanings? I mean, what are his -- does he have views on that, on how Russia's incredible wealth right now, generated by oil and gas, should be spent?

PAUL STAROBIN: Well, in the first instance, he wanted to see the state consolidate its key holdings in oil and gas, which is the engine right now for the Russian economy. The price of oil has gone from $10 a barrel in 1998 to close to $100 now.

I mean, billions of dollars are coming into the Russian coffers. They're being used to pay down the debt. They've done that, the foreign debt that they've assumed. They're being used now for these infrastructure projects, although not as fast as a lot of people would like.

One of the things Medvedev was in charge of was, like, education, health. I mean, this is a country that may be, you know, resurgent economically, but you have 700,000 people a year -- you know, the population is being diminished. So he's got a lot to do. You know, this is not across-the-board prosperity in Russia by any means.

Foreign relations

MARGARET WARNER: And then what about his relations, foreign affairs? I mean, the president is, at least nominally, the person that the president of the United States is going to be dealing with...

PAUL STAROBIN: That's right.

MARGARET WARNER: ... or the leadership of Ukraine or some of the neighboring states. So what does it mean for that?

PAUL STAROBIN: Well, again, I think energy will be an important club in that relationship. Medvedev has been the chairman of Gazprom, which is the number one, you know, gas giant in the world. And he can use that as a tool.

Europe is dependent on Russia for 25 percent of its gas. Russia wants leverage at the bargaining table no matter what the issue is, whether it's Iran sanctions, the independence of Kosovo, you name it. I would expect that Medvedev would be a fairly tough negotiator.

MARGARET WARNER: So when he said in his remarks today, you know, Russia's reclaimed its rightful place in the world, we're no longer lectured to like schoolchildren, that sounds a lot like Putin, like, "Russia is back, and don't mess with us."

PAUL STAROBIN: I think that's the prevailing sentiment. I think they feel that way. I think they even feel a little bit cocky. They've got $100-a-barrel oil and gas. They think that they're in the buyer's seat.

They see China, they see Japan, they see Europe, they see America all wanting to buy Russia's energy products. They see all the turmoil in the Middle East. They say, "Well, look at us. You know, we can play, too."

So, yes, I think the Russian elite, at least, is feeling pretty good right now. Now, if the situation were to change, if those prices were to go down, then they might lose a little bit of their confidence.

But, yes, and they felt humiliated, as you said, in the 1990s. They felt people were laughing at them and Americans, too. And nobody likes to be laughed at.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Paul Starobin, thank you so much.

PAUL STAROBIN: Thank you.