Russia's outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, has many fans on the Internet, 130,000 on Twitter and 180,000 on Facebook. Medvedev, an occasional blogger, used the Web as a forum to promote his reforms. Now his supporters are using it to vent their fury and disappointment at the weekend announcement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is to run for the presidency in elections next March.
On Saturday Medvedev published photos of the party congress of United Russia on Facebook. But the communicative president didn't make himself any new friends. "The last hope has died," commented one Web surfer with the pseudonym Artjom. Web user Marina wrote that the lectern at which Medvedev committed political suicide on Saturday by refraining from running for a second term looked like "half a coffin."
Medvedev, the leader of a nuclear power, commander-in-chief of a million-strong army, was only ever a virtual president. Putin will return to the Kremlin after the presidential election. Observers like political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov said Putin could be president for another two terms, or 12 years, provided nothing "unusual" happens to stop him. And maybe even longer? "I'm not ruling out that Medvedev could again succeed him after that. That means we know the configuration of Russian state power until 2036," said Nikonov.
It is Russian tradition for rulers to arrange their succession. The Central Committee of the Communist Party crowned Soviet apparatchiks like Leonid Brezhnev or Konstantin Chernenko, and Boris Yeltsin annointed Putin as his successor. The practice preserved the power of the elites and also satisfied a yearning for stability in parts of the population.
Medvedev, nominated as president by Putin in 2007, is now handing the job back to Putin, whom Medvedev made prime minister in 2008. The rotations of this political perpetuum mobile are dizzying. The duo have presented the party and the nation with a fait accompli. Russia's population of 142 million will be bystanders in the coming elections.
Moscow's Kremlin, a fortress of red walls and high battlements, has been a symbol of strict hierarchy and absolute power since the Middle Ages. Tsars and General Secretaries ruled from here -- followed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by presidents whom the Russian constitution endowed with even greater powers than the American head of state.
But in recent years, Russia's form of government has undergone creeping change, without any revisions to the constitution. When Medvedev moved into the Kremlin four years ago, most of the power moved out with Putin to the White House on the Moskva River, to the seat of the Russian government.
In the new Russia, it doesn't matter what powers the constitution formally assigns to the president and the prime minister. It all depends on where Vladimir Putin is. He is the state.
Next May, Russia will once again change its form of government, overnight, when Putin becomes president for his third term and returns to the Kremlin to re-establish his old power base. Medvedev will be demoted from head of government to a subordinate.
Putin's high popularity will assure him of a clear victory in the election. Where necessary, obliging governors and election officials will help out. The Russian people have effectively given Putin full power of attorney, grateful that he has given the country a degree of stability.
Constitution Is An Empty Shell
Putin's popularity is fed by the prosperity that raw materials exports have bestowed on the country, and by the nation's collective memory of the turmoil of the 1990s. Oil and gas will continue to flow, albeit a little less strongly, and the memories are fading only slowly. There will be no quick changes in Russia.
"We stopped the country from disintegrating," Putin confidant Boris Gryzlov called out to delegates at the party congress. "Powerlessness is a lethal danger for Russia." Putin and his men proudly declare that they have returned the Russian state to strength.
In truth, they have hijacked it. Russia's constitution is little more than an empty shell that does a poor job of concealing the neo-feudal regime of Prince Putin. The democratic institutions may have been weak and flawed at the end of the 1990s, but Putin has robbed them of their functions altogether. He has subjected parliaments, judges and even the office of president to his will. A separation of powers no longer exists.
The tabloid newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets described Putin's empire as "Putlandia." His Russia isn't a dictatorship like the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the Belarus of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Putin has turned his proud country into a modern grand duchy.