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RUSSIA

Deciphering Putin's New Role as Leader

President Vladimir Putin's appointment as United Russia head sends conflicting signals about how Russia will be ruled after May 7.

The positive signal is that Putin's move could help strengthen democratic institutions by changing the way the Cabinet is formed. Before, the Cabinet was formed in a closed fashion by the president and prime minister. Now it could be done in a more open, transparent fashion within the State Duma. Although the Cabinet should remain open to appointments outside the party and no one should be forced to join United Russia, the overall composition of the government should be partisan. Putin should signal his preference for such transparency.

Putin should also join United Russia after he steps down as president. Being a party leader without being its member is unprecedented in most democratic political cultures, and it undermines the party's legitimacy by showing the people that the leader does not completely trust the party that he heads. On the other hand, if Putin remains a nonmember of United Russia, it will help dispel the allegations that he is trying to build a new version of the Soviet Communist Party.

The negative signal is the appearance that Putin's elevation to the United Russia chairmanship has been hastily pushed through with a single purpose -- to cement the institutional checks on President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and to ensure Putin's continued dominance in ruling the country.

Putin's decision to chair United Russia was strongly lobbied for by those in his inner circle who are known to be on less-than-friendly terms with Medvedev. Having Putin lead the government and United Russia would make Medvedev, as one such insider suggested, "a less powerful president," implying a more ceremonial role for the young leader.

Indeed, Putin's complete control over the government and the parliament creates a situation in which Medvedev will not be able to change his prime minister or Cabinet until Dec. 3, when he gains the constitutional right to dismiss the Duma. Moreover, this move would run the risk of plunging the country into a major political crisis.

But it is equally possible that Putin wants to create two powerful political centers, each with separate responsibilities to balance each other. This would make Russia no longer the country where "everything depends on one man" -- something Putin himself publicly came out against last year.

It's about time for Putin to sort out the conflicting signals he is sending during this transition. The uncertainty over how Russia will be ruled cannot last much longer. Putin's statement last week that he would not be going to the G8 summit in Japan is an overdue step in the right direction.

(The Moscow Times 21.iv.08)

 
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