Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin posted this statement on his official website on March 21:
My second point relates to the UN Security Council resolution based on which the current intervention — a military intervention — is being carried out. This resolution is flawed and inadequate. If one reads it, then it immediately becomes clear that it authorizes anyone to take any measures against a sovereign state. All in all, it reminds me of a medieval call to crusade, when someone calls upon others to go somewhere and free someone else.
At a press conference later that day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said:
Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as “crusade” and so on. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse compared to what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.
Since the founding of the Russian Federation, there have been 19 prime ministers. Their average term in office has been less than a year. Putin has served as prime minister since May of 2008. Only two other prime ministers have served longer.
According to the 2003 Russian Constitution, the president (Medvedev) appoints or fires the prime minister (Putin). The president’s decision must be ratified by the Duma. If it rejects the president’s decision three times, it is dissolved and a new Duma must be elected.
The Russian Constitution established a strong president. If things went wrong, the prime minister was to take the fall and resign or be removed. The Russian Constitution also gives the president authority for foreign policy. Public disagreement by a prime minister on foreign policy is insubordination. Putin’s March 21 statement was not a slip of the tongue. He deliberately posted it on his official webpage.
Putin and Medvedev have ruled Russia as a “tandem” since 2008. Medvedev has played the “good cop” to the outside world, speaking in favor of the rule of law, improved relations with the United States, competitive political parties, and a better investment climate. Putin has played the macho “bad cop” not only in words but also in deeds, the most notable being a second prison term for jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the beating and arrest of democratic leaders.
Russia’s 2012 presidential election is looming. Both Putin and Medvedev want the job. Only one can have it. They have vaguely declared that they will meet at some point to decide the issue. Putin, in addition to his duties as prime minister, heads the dominant faction in the Duma, United Russia.
Putin’s March 21 statement and Medvedev’s angry response represent the first open break in the “tandem.” There have been, however, a series of more subtle disagreements. In Davos, Medvedev’s representative openly criticized the Khodorkovsky case as harming Russian economic interests. Medvedev’s repeated references to Russia’s lack of rule of law were indirectly aimed at Putin, as are his calls for more competitive elections.
Putin’s insubordination gives Medvedev an ideal opportunity to fire Putin. It would clear the path to the presidency. Putin would not hold any official office leading up to the election, other than heading the United Russia Party. United Russia failed to win majorities in last Sunday’s regional and municipal elections, despite the fact that there were no real opposition parties. United Russia’s loss of popularity would make its Duma members shy away from a parliamentary election at this inconvenient time.
Medvedev’s “nuclear option” — firing Putin — would take Russia into uncharted territory. Putin’s United Russia could file impeachment charges against Medvedev. According to the 1993 Constitution, the president can only be impeached for “high treason and other high crimes” by a two-thirds vote of both houses. Putin may have the votes to impeach Medvedev but would be hard-pressed to charge him with “treason and high crimes” when his real crime is dismissing Putin.
There is one factor Medvedev would have to seriously consider: his personal safety. If he were to challenge Putin, he would also threaten Putin’s KGB colleagues who control much of industry and the machinery of state. Medvedev does not have his own “power” network. He comes from legal circles within the St. Petersburg city government. He has allies at think tanks and in legal circles, but he does not have Putin’s thugs, prosecutors, police, and security agents.
My guess is that Medvedev will not risk the nuclear option, but he has a remarkable opportunity to “reset” Russia itself, not just Russia’s relations with the West. Russia has recently been downgraded from “partly free” to “unfree” by Freedom House. If Medvedev had the courage to fire Putin, Russia could be put back on course to becoming a democratic country governed by the rule of law. Such an action would be a game changer for the entire world.
Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an expert on the Russian economy and Russia politics. He is also the author of numerous books, including Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).