Leading article: A new leader, and the long shadow cast by Mr Putin

Wednesday 07 May 2008 00:00
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Presidential hand-over ceremonies are usually all about the new leader, with the outgoing figure little more than a formal adjunct. But things will be rather more complicated in the Kremlin today when Dmitry Medvedev officially becomes President of Russia. Mr Medvedev will certainly be the main focus. But many eyes will be just as intently concentrated on the outgoing president: Vladimir Putin.

This is partly because President Putin's legacy looms so large. In his eight years in power, Mr Putin has ended the war in Chechnya, tamed the rapacious "oligarchs" and raised living standards for most Russians. Thanks to Russia's extraordinary economic boom, the country now presides over the third highest foreign exchange reserves in the world. Economically, politically and diplomatically, Russia is again a player on the global stage.

Soaring oil and gas prices have helped deliver all this, but Mr Putin has played a generally weak hand with impressive skill. And his sky-high personal popularity ratings are testament to how he has changed the country for the better in the eyes of many Russians.

But all that he has achieved has come at a price. From a democratic perspective, Mr Putin has been a huge disappointment. He has done nothing to promote civil society or the rule of law. He has thwarted the free media, obstructed and marginalised opposition parties and appropriated power to the centre. His control of government though a coterie of former security service agents has only increased already rampant bureaucratic corruption.

Stability in Chechnya has been achieved through the installation of a brutal Kremlin-loyal warlord. Despite the greater centralisation of power, economic development has been dangerously uneven. Many rural areas have not shared in the boom. Aspects of Russia's infrastructure remain lamentable. New outside investment is urgently required, but the Kremlin seems determined to keep limits on foreign business activity in Russia.

In its dealings with the outside world, meanwhile, Mr Putin's Russia has too often conducted its diplomacy with an aggressive snarl. The West has certainly been clumsy and needlessly provocative in its response to the former superpower, but Russia's intimidation of neighbours such as Ukraine and Georgia has been disturbing nonetheless; so have the fires of nationalism that Mr Putin has at times stoked at home.

The other reason why so many eyes will remain on Mr Putin today is the question mark that remains over this handover. After all, it is not clear that anything will actually change. Mr Putin is not retiring from public life to spend more time at his Black Sea villa. He will become a uniquely powerful prime minister, a post he has been quietly bolstering. Only last month he issued a decree, ordering regional governors to submit their annual reports to the prime minister's office, rather than the Kremlin. Mr Putin also remains head of United Russia, by far the largest party in the Duma. He leaves the Kremlin with a significant power base of his own.

Of course, some change is inevitable. It would be too simplistic to characterise Mr Medvedev as Mr Putin's puppet. And Russia's presidency is a powerful post. We should also bear in mind that, while Mr Putin was almost unknown when he was brought in by Boris Yeltsin, it did not take him long to assert himself. A crucial indication of the future direction will be the distribution of key government posts. Announcements can be expected in the coming days.

Russia today enters a new stage in its post-Soviet history; but the curtain has yet to descend on the formidable era of Vladimir Putin.

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