Outside editorial: Russia's new president-elect bears close scrutinizing

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Kansas City Star:

Russia has a new president-elect, but it's not yet clear who will actually rule.

Dmitry Medvedev won Sunday's election with more than 70 percent of the vote, in a campaign in which most opposition candidates were suppressed.

Outgoing President Vladimir Putin isn't about to fade from the scene. He will become prime minister, setting up a potential power struggle with Medvedev, who has worked in Putin's shadow for 17 years.

Under the Russian constitution, the president - at least on paper - has more heft than the prime minister, whose main job is to draft the government budget and implement policy.

Both men have said they expect to handle their new jobs without conflict. But at the same time, both say they expect to take the lead.

Putin says the prime minister has the "highest executive power." Medvedev says "the president rules Russia, and according to the constitution there's only one president." Some analysts expect conflict between the two after Medvedev's inauguration in May.

Putin's unusual job shift will allow him to remain at the center of power even though he was barred by the constitution from seeking a third term as president.

The move highlights the diluted nature of Russian democracy since Putin's rise in the Kremlin. Freedom House, an organization that monitors the state of democratic practices globally, says Russian citizens experience about the same level of freedom as people in Egypt and Angola.

Under Putin, political dissent has been brutally suppressed, and Russia has used its status as a major natural-gas supplier to bully its neighbors. Russian bombers have been accused of intruding on Japanese airspace, and recently bombers flew over a U.S. aircraft carrier at low altitude.

Russia's worrisome behavior bears close watching in Washington, where the implications of Moscow's aggressiveness may not be fully appreciated.

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