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A 2nd Briefcase for Putin

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President Dmitry Medvedev made his first domestic trip as president in his capacity as the commander in chief of the armed forces. It was clear that he wanted to see exactly what he controls with the "nuclear briefcase" inherited from former President Vladimir Putin. Medvedev visited a top-secret missile base in the Ivanovo region and, by all appearances, he was very satisfied at seeing the missiles.

The way I see it, this trip should have carried major political significance. For the past 20 years, control of the country's nuclear forces -- as symbolized by the notorious little briefcase, a device allowing the president to order a nuclear attack -- has become a modern equivalent to the crown and scepter that represented a monarch's absolute authority. Remember how former President Boris Yeltsin literally yanked the nuclear briefcase out of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's hands? Or how Yeltsin had barely regained consciousness after an operation when he demanded that the briefcase be brought to him?

This time, the handing over of this symbol of ultimate authority seemed to go off smoothly. But even with the briefcase in hand, Medvedev has not created the impression that he is the country's central figure, much less the commander in chief. It was quite obvious that Putin began forming a second center of power immediately after his confirmation as prime minister. It is difficult to imagine Putin paying no attention to the siloviki. This is why Medvedev made his first trip as president to a missile base. And with that trip he might have managed to convince everyone that he is the one in charge of the Ground Forces and Navy.

Medvedev might have convinced them had Putin not announced on the same day his creation of a government presidium. In all probability, a government with seven deputy prime ministers for 18 ministers really does require some kind of supervisory body. The only problem is that the presidium includes the defense, foreign and interior ministers -- the very portfolios that are the exclusive domain of the president. This raises the question: Which issues is Putin planning to discuss with these ministers on a weekly basis? It seems that he plans to discuss the very questions that, as prime minister, should not concern him. The result is that Putin seems to have prepared for himself a second "nuclear briefcase" -- just in case.

If he wants to avoid violating the law directly, Putin will have to exert control over the siloviki informally, relying on his supporters' personal loyalty to him. At the same time, it remains unclear who in the Kremlin will be responsible for the siloviki, starting with suggestions for appointments to the highest posts -- a tool that has proven extremely effective at establishing control. This responsibility will go to either the president's staff assistant, Oleg Markov, or to former Federal Security Services chief Nikolai Patrushev, now the secretary of the Security Council. It is worth noting, however, that neither Markov nor Patrushev has the authority to implement such appointments -- they would only be entrusted to prepare suggestions for the president. Consequently, their authority depends first on the extent of the president's authority and second on their proximity the president.

The result is that Putin's power vertical is being replaced by a new system of authority based on personal agreements. This is unfolding in a government where a clear pecking order based on the rule of law is needed. The outcome could be a dangerous power vacuum instead of two centers of power. Anybody who has worked in an organization with too many bosses knows that a struggle for subordinates inevitably develops between them.

All of this is occurring amid what seems to be the start of rather serious changes to the Defense Ministry. There are plans for a significant reduction in the number of officers, including generals. If that happens, a conflict will inevitably erupt, with one group of officers appealing to the president for help, and the other group to the prime minister.

This is especially dangerous given that all of the highest posts in the law enforcement agencies are held by people who entered service during the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s. In contrast to officers cast in the Soviet mold, these men do not respect or fear their political leaders.

There is nothing to indicate that the new system of governance is being created under a clear and well-considered plan. More likely, it is an improvisation, with its authors hoping that everything will fall into place by itself. But Russian history contains grim examples of leaders who relied on "manual control," personal charisma and a loud voice to rule the country.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

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