The last Dmitry to rule in the Kremlin, way back in 1605, savored absolute authority for less than a year before running afoul of Moscow's power brokers. Suspected of trying to convert Russia to Roman Catholicism, he was denounced as the "False Dmitry," assassinated, his body burned and his ashes shot out of a cannon pointed toward Poland. Russia's new Dmitry, Mr. Medvedev, is set to assume Russia's powerful presidency in a matter of days. His fate will doubtless be less severe than his predecessor's. Yet, the president-to-be is nevertheless coming to power engulfed by a fog of speculation that raises questions about whether his tenure will be a tranquil one for Russia, and, by extension, for Russia's near-abroad.
When Vladimir Putin's second presidential term ends and the President-elect Dmitry Medvedev is inaugurated on May 7, Russia's history will take a potentially destabilizing turn. The thing is that while stepping down as the head of state, Putin seems set to retain vast powers by serving as prime minister under Medvedev. Putin's recent decision to become the head of the United Russia seemed to confirm his intent to continue playing a dominating role in Russian politics. The party enjoys a super majority in the Russian parliament, and thus has the ability to alter the constitution. According to a witticism now making the rounds in Moscow; "Putin seems to be going, but in fact he is staying."
But if Putin is not going to be "demobbed," to use his own expression, how then will the emerging system of power function in practice? Will it be a more or less harmonious diarchy with a clear-cut division of powers between the two centers of authority? Or will we see an unstable dual power with the two centers constantly bickering and undermining one another? Or will there be a situation whereby the president is a mere figurehead, while the prime minister acts as the power behind the throne?
It would appear that at the moment no one (including Putin and Medvedev) knows for sure how this "two-headed" power arrangement will play out. But if Russian history is any guide, there are two basic scenarios.
With its centuries-long tradition of autocratic rule and the strong "monarchist" sentiment deeply rooted in the mass consciousness, Russia usually has suffered terribly when any major split occurred at the very top. The emergence of an alternative center of power routinely produced sharp divisions among the elite, vicious feuds among the "boyars," internecine strife within the bureaucracy and sometimes even the collapse of the state the phenomena well encapsulated in the Russian notion of Smutnoe Vremya (Time of Troubles). The 1991 Soviet implosion had its roots in such upheaval, as Mikhail Gorbachev lost the trust of the nomenklatura to defend the Communist Party's interests.
The fear of internal discord caused by schisms in Russia's traditionally narrow ruling circle prompted Nikolai Karamzin, the father of modern Russian historiography, to coin his famous formula: "Russia was founded by [military] victories and one-man rule, perished due to the division of power and would always be rescued by the wise autocracy."
Throughout Russia's history, almost all incidents of dual power invariably ended in a debacle. Russia's last bout with "dual-poweritis" occurred in 1993, when squabbling between then-president Boris Yeltsin and a recalcitrant legislature culminated with the parliament building in central Moscow being bombarded and going up in flames.
Professional historians, however, can recall one instance when supreme power in Russia was shared in an amicable and reasonably effective way. This occurred when, following Russia's 17th-century Time of Troubles, the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail Fedorovich, was enthroned in 1613. Being just 16 at the time, Mikhail I shared power with his formidable father, Patriarch Filaret, who was his son's official co-ruler and had the title of Veliky Gosudar (Grand Seignior). The arrangement worked well due to the simple reason: it was the seasoned politician Filaret who actually ran the country.
Any real dual power situation, accompanied by the emergence of two competing centers of authority, is very uncomfortable and even painful for the Russian mass consciousness, as specialists in Russian political culture have long noted. In a situation when there are "two tsars," the Russians will likely regard one tsar as "false" a samozvanets (impostor). Then we may have a "False Dmitry" scenario so named after the early 17th century young adventurer who challenged the rule of the Tsar Boris Godunov. Claiming he was Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, False Dmitry managed, with the help of the Polish forces, to seize Moscow and was crowned tsar in the summer of 1605, only to meet his grisly demise in the spring of 1606.
Judging by all the moves Vladimir Putin has made so far to secure a smooth transition, he is seeking to realize the "Tsar Mikhail" scenario: a young and inexperienced president working under the guidance of a seasoned and powerful prime minister. The former is meant to be just a nominal "tsar," while the latter will actually run the show.
According to the Russian Constitution, as the country's head of state Dmitry Medvedev will enjoy nearly monarchical powers. He will control the "power ministries," head Russia's Security Council, and appoint military top brass. He will also be commander-in-chief. But through skillful maneuvering, Putin the presumptive prime minister has already secured considerable leverage over Medvedev's Kremlin. Due to his total control of the United Russia party, Putin can block the passage of any presidential bills in parliament. Russia's regional legislatures, also largely controlled by United Russia, can easily prevent people whom Putin dislikes from being appointed governors. Duma lawmakers likewise can adopt any legislation prepared by the Putin-led government. And the majority that United Russia enjoys in parliament is enough to override a presidential veto. Thus, in reality Dmitry Medvedev stands to have few levers of influence at his disposal with which he could resist Putin.
Although both Medvedev and Putin seem to be going out of their way to demonstrate that they have full trust in each another, Putin isn't taking any chances. With the quasi-parliamentary system at his disposal, Putin could use United Russia to remove Medvedev from his post, if the young president tried to break out of the imposed power-sharing arrangement, and pursue an independent course. The Russian Constitution contains provisions for the impeachment of the chief executive, and Putin likely wouldn't hesitate to implement them relying on his party subordinates who dominate the Duma. While the president can fire the prime minister, the Duma, packed as it is with Putin loyalists, would be in a position to reject any other candidate.
Ultimately, if he refuses to play ball with Putin, Dmitry Medvedev could easily end up being delegitimized by his patron. If this ever comes to pass, we will witness a perennial Russian pattern: of two tsars one would prove to be "untrue" a "false Dmitry."
Igor Torbakov is a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki specializing in Russian and Eurasian history and politics.