MOSCOW. (Grigory Melamedov for RIA Novosti) - The final list of participants in the presidential race will soon be known. But even if the name of the future president is practically beyond doubt, the question of the new configuration of power still remains open.
Few analysts are looking for historical parallels when it comes to Vladimir Putin's future, although they are quite possible. Paradoxical as it might be, it seems most appropriate to compare Putin with Mikhail Gorbachev.
It is hard to find in Russia's recent history two politicians who would be as different from each other as Putin and Gorbachev. They are poles apart in everything but one point - their real intentions and political future remained an enigma until their last days in power. Up to the middle of 1991, policymakers were arguing whether Gorbachev was ready to sacrifice his power for the sake of his reforms. Likewise, it is still unclear whether Putin is ready to yield his position to Dmitry Medvedev in real earnest and without any reservations.
The universal opinion is that in Gorbachev's case vagueness was the result of his lack of resolve and the absence of a plan of action. With Putin it is the other way round - everyone is convinced that he has a shrewd plan, which he does not reveal out of tactical considerations. But is this really the case? The Putin-built system of management is far from stable and for this reason he does not have too much room for maneuver.
Stability has been Putin's political credo for the last eight years. He explained even his refusal to run for a third term by his desire to stop the practice of subjecting Russia to political experiments. But the political situation which Putin has created is nothing else than one more experiment - probably, the biggest one in the last 17 years.
To start with, there has emerged a powerful political organization - the United Russia party. It is now common to compare it with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which is not quite appropriate. Unlike United Russia, the CPSU was based on immutable ideology and rigid nomenclature hierarchy. Even more importantly, the CPSU was the backbone of the political system, whereas United Russia is merely one of its elements, though an important one. The CPSU and United Russia are similar in being more than just parties.
In eight years United Russia has become a structure of the presidential power, a kind of a "department on parliamentary affairs." In this context, United Russia does not and cannot have any rivals, just as one country cannot have two armies or two ministries of the same kind. To sum up, it represents an entirely different political institution than other participants in the parliamentary elections, which are European-style parties but very weak.
The recent Duma elections probably seemed undemocratic because United Russia cannot be compared to 10 other parties in the role they are playing in the political system. This method of electing a parliament is one more experiment, and quite a risky one.
As a result, on the one hand, many Russians want to have a strong opposition party which would fight for their interests or at least express their views. On the other hand, United Russia has a host of talented people with a good political perspective and most different political views. Under a genuine multi-party system these budding leaders would find themselves in different parties but now they have no choice for career development but to join the ruling party, especially since the government does not insist on a rigid ideology. In this context, United Russia is reminiscent of the CPSU of the Gorbachev era, which brought up the leaders of the future opposition from its own ranks.
The likelihood that history will repeat itself is very high, all the more so since Putin's other experiment - to divide power with Medvedev - is conducive to this. A double-headed eagle is good on the emblem but the power with two de facto presidents cannot be stable by definition. This is especially true of Russia, where the national tradition, the Constitution, and, most important, the bureaucracy cannot accept anything else but one-man, authoritarian rule.
The attempts to promote a Just Russia party have shown that the bureaucrats do not want to hear about any alternative options, even if they come from above and concern only the lower chamber of parliament. The two presidents are out of the question. Even if Putin and Medvedev agree on a clear division of roles, and strictly abide by their commitments (which rarely happens in politics), the bureaucrats - from a minister to the head of a district authority - would not be able to function normally unless they decide who is more important. Putin managed to break the power ambitions of different groups of the political elite rather easily. But if he decides to change their mentality, he is likely to provoke a split between his subordinates, as it happened with Gorbachev.
There is no doubt that the new generation of the political elite growing within the party of power will try to get as many dividends as possible from this situation. It transpires that having eradicated the old toothless opposition, Putin has created all the prerequisites for the appearance of the new one.
He is likely to be aware of the risks, just as Gorbachev realized the threat of a split in the CPSU. Putin is probably deliberately trying to create several parties from one in the hope to be above the fight. But is this possible? He may manage to prevent the ruinous dual power and keep the events within the constitutional field (as distinct from Gorbachev), but he is not likely to control such complicated political processes and squeeze them into his scenario.