Could Russia be facing a system of co-sovereignty, but with the roles reversed -- with Vladimir Putin (right) remaining in command, but as prime minister, and first mate Dimitry Medvedev (left) moving to the Kremlin?
The office of the Russian president is located on the second floor of the mustard-yellow building of the former senate, hugging the Kremlin wall. The office, with its view of Moscow's Red Square, contains few of the typical insignias of power. Sharpened red pencils are lined up on the desk, ready to be used for last-minute corrections. A table with gilded legs stands in front of a wood-paneled wall, against a backdrop of the presidential standards.
Meanwhile, the president sits at the upper end of the table, leaning back in his leather chair, and yet as tense as a coiled spring. If a report, on educational policy, for example, takes too long for his taste, he has a habit of interrupting and snapping: "And, is the work coming along?" Or, if the report meets with his approval, he might order, with a wave of his hand, higher salaries for hundreds of thousands of people in the healthcare system, hastily adding: "The government is prepared."
This has been standard procedure at the Kremlin until now. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's first deputy prime minister, experienced precisely the same treatment some time ago. Medvedev was the man at the lower end of the table. Vladimir Putin was sitting at the head of the table.
The order at Putin's table remains valid until Sunday, when the relatively publicity-shy Medvedev, on Putin's suggestion, will likely be elected the country's next president. Following the official transfer of power in May, Putin, who has held the country's highest office for eight years, will -- on Medvedev's suggestion -- assume the lower-ranking position of prime minister.
It's a rarity in politics for the chef and the waiter to switch aprons, and to do it harmoniously, no less. In Russia's strictly hierarchical leadership circles, it would normally be inconceivable. The fact that nothing less than the reins to the country are at play in the upcoming exchange of roles has even seasoned Kremlin astrologers speculating.
What has prompted Putin, the most popular Kremlin leader in a long time, to switch to the subordinate position after the end of his constitutionally limited term in office? And what distinguishes his successor Medvedev, 42, a lawyer from St. Petersburg who was considered subservient until now? Merely the ability to be subservient? Could Russia be facing a system of co-sovereignty, but with the roles reversed -- with Putin remaining in command, but as prime minister, and first mate Medvedev moving to the Kremlin?
In a speech before the Russian State Council, Putin presented a list of ambitious goals for Russia, the reawakening superpower -- not just for the present, but for a period extending well into the future until 2020. In doing so, he laid the bait for a hungry pack of Kremlin analysts. In 2012, after a four-year interregnum with Medvedev as president, Putin, who would be 59 by then, would be eligible to serve two additional terms as president.
Moscow's current game of chess over political positions revolves around the question of who will be in charge, in the longterm, of the world's largest country by landmass. Who will determine what happens with the country's vast oil, gas and diamond resources, its gold and foreign currency reserves worth almost half a trillion dollars, the world's second-largest nuclear weapons arsenal and poison cupboards full of intelligence files?
Will it be the slight Medvedev, who will soon join the world's leaders at the G-8 summits to debate the global financial crisis and the Iranian nuclear program? Will Medvedev become the new czar, or will he remain the czarevich, as the sons of Russian czar were once called?
The best place to begin to look for answers to these questions is St. Petersburg, a city that is both the home of Vladimir Putin and the place of birth of his successor.
Medvedev was born in Kupchino, a faceless suburb to the south of St. Petersburg. It is only a 30-minute ride on the overcrowded subway between this drab bedroom community of 420,000 people, with its five- and nine-story prefab, Communist-era high-rise blocks, and the magnificent cathedrals and palaces of downtown St. Petersburg. An entire world separates the two places. Tourists flying into Pulkovo Airport from the east are unlikely to give Kupchino's concrete wasteland more than a passing glance.
Putin, the son of a factory worker, grew up in the 1950s in the streets and alleyways of the old city, still scarred by war and destruction, in an overcrowded communal apartment near the Palace Square. His successor, on the other hand, is a foster child of the more recent Soviet era and the son of a professor. His father, Anatoly, taught at the Institute of Technology, while his mother, Yulia, taught language and literature at the Gertsen Institute. As part of the intelligentsia, the Medvedev family received its own apartment in Kupchino, in a building with an elevator. That same elevator hardly works today, as a neighbor complains, although she adds that this will "hopefully change now." The grimy entrance and courtyard could also use some TLC, she says, "before someone installs a plaque to honor the new president."