Since the fall of the czars, Russians have known the Kremlin as the seat of ultimate power. From Wednesday, they won’t be so sure. President Vladimir Putin is to hand control of the fabled fortress to president-elect Dmitry Medvedev in a solemn ceremony before assuming the less august position of prime minister the following day.
But despite the apparent demotion, Putin is widely expected to take much of his power with him to his new office in the White House, a hulking Soviet building 4km from the Kremlin.
As the country’s top bureaucrat, Russia’s prime minister has always been subservient to the president, who has the power to dismiss the government on a whim.
But two-thirds of Russians believe prime minister Putin and his allies will instead control president Medvedev, turning the traditional power structure on its head, a poll last month by the Levada Center showed.
Even the best-connected Kremlinologists have been left guessing how the two old friends might split power, said Masha Lipman, a Russia expert with the US-funded Carnegie Center.
“All we can be certain of is that Putin will be more powerful than any prime minister before him,” she said. “Beyond that, no one knows what is going to happen. It’s a matter between the two men.”
In a February speech, Putin described the prime minister’s office as the “highest executive power in the country.”
The presidency, he indicated, was a more symbolic post as “guarantor of the constitution.”
The remark was widely seen as preparing the ground for a change of definition for the presidency, in which Putin took on unprecedented powers over the last eight years.
Last month Putin bolstered his base by taking control of the country’s dominant party, United Russia, whose two-thirds majority in parliament gives it the power to change the Constitution.
This would allow Putin to “redistribute powers and transform Russia into a parliamentary republic” if there was a stand-off with the presidency, said Sergei Markov, a member of parliament for United Russia and a pro-Putin political analyst.
In recent weeks Putin has moved to transform the prime minister’s office, boosting its staff by 50 percent, bringing in close allies from the Kremlin and reducing the technical issues that clog up the Cabinet agenda.
In a sign of his attachment to the presidential lifestyle, Putin has been allowed to keep his Novo-Ogaryovo residence in an elite suburb west of Moscow.
While pundits agree that a major shift of influence to the prime minister’s office is underway, not everyone sees a simple power-grab by Putin, who was barred by the Constitution from running for a third presidential term in March.
The dual leadership system is seen by some as a careful mechanism allowing Putin to control the transition.
“For Putin, power is a burden,” said Markov, who heads the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies as well as serving in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. “If Medvedev follows Putin’s policies better than Putin himself, then Putin will step aside.”
But if Medvedev proves too weak, his presidency could be reduced to a role akin to a foreign minister — and he could be forced to step down at the end of his first term in 2012, Markov said. The Constitution bars anyone from holding the presidency for more than two terms in a row, but that would not stop Putin from standing again in 2012.