The sharp increase in President Dmitry Medvedev's activity over the last couple of weeks resembles his election campaign a year ago. Those recent activities include: his meetings with representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and the Prosecutor General's Office; his "fire-side chats" shown on television; his replacement of four governors; and his announcement that the dialogue between the president and the governors will be expanded and become more frequent. In addition, Medvedev announced that he will beef up his reserve of future leaders, met with foreign leaders and traveled throughout the regions. It seems that Medvedev's hyperactivity is placing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the shadow of the country's political life.
Medvedev is "inflating" his political presence in the same way that gypsies would "inflate" a horse before putting it up for sale. It is obvious that the surge in activity is mostly PR and does not indicate any serious political or personal changes. For example, the announcement of a presidential staffing reserve of about 100 people does not mean that those are "Medvedev's people" or that Medvedev plans to suddenly replace officials installed by then-President Putin.
In addition, the real reason Medvedev replaced the governors in the Voronezh, Orlov and Pskov regions as well as the Nenets autonomous district is to better control the increase in the governors' independence.
The current round of appointments completely dispels the myth of the advent of younger and more energetic politicians, which many had hoped for when Medvedev announced the appointment of 33-year-old Nikita Belykh as the governor of Kirov. He was considered to be Medvedev's personal candidate. This is a typical Putin-style castling move in which an official from one agency is moved to a gubernatorial post. But in the regions during a period of crisis, where a leader's knowledge of the local situation often outweighs his image, changing the governor over a question of his style could only make the situation worse. It appears to be positively dangerous for the Kremlin, in the midst of an economic crisis, to remove governors it finds displeasing for one reason or another and replace them with people who have no experience in that region.
Recent surveys indicate that the few people who one year ago believed that Medvedev would be the country's actual -- and not merely nominal -- leader has now dropped by half. At the same time, the ratings for the Medvedev-Putin team remain high. That is the only basis for political stability. But if Putin and Medvedev do nothing to strengthen the country's political institutions, the entire system will effectively depend on keeping those ratings at a relatively high level. In that, not only the president and prime minister have a vested interest, but so does the entire political elite.
If you were to imagine that those ratings suddenly fell like the ruble, it would turn out that neither the State Duma nor the Federation Council as they now exist hold any real authority or influence and cannot provide the country with political stability. How can Putin hold onto his high ratings in the midst of a worsening economic crisis? It is possible that Medvedev's frenetic schedule in recent weeks is one attempt at resolving that problem. Putin has to be somehow saved from the blow, pulled to the side so as to remove any hint of his being responsible for the negative consequences of the crisis. The only way to do that is to put someone else's head on the chopping block. But now the country is faced with another problem: Who can rule the country besides Putin?
This comment first appeared in The Moscow Times