Things in Russia played out very predictably last week. On May 7, Dmitry Medvedev, the former pipeline CEO and presidential aide who Vladimir Putin had christened his chosen successor, was sworn in as Russia’s new president. The day after, the Russian parliament ratified former President Putin as the country’s new Prime Minister, in a vote of 392 to 56. Putin was out of power for only a few scant hours.
The press likes to stick with certain comfortable narratives when it comes to talking about Russian politics. One of the main ones right now is that Putin is a power-mad tyrant in the making, and that President Medvedev is destined to be little more than a figurehead in Putin’s new term. That may very well be the case (and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it will be) but it’s still worth noting that Mr. Medvedev is a very powerful and important man in his own right, and the idea that he and Putin could share power, or even fight, is not entirely out of the question.
Medvedev was trained as a lawyer, and spent most of his career in politics as a behind-the-scenes legal adviser, counseling various politicians—including Putin, whom he has known since the early 1990’s. Ever since Putin was a mere municipal politician he’s been one of the great man’s most trusted advisers, serving as chair of his re-election campaign in 2000, and chief of staff from 2003 to 2005.
As is common in today’s Russia, Medvedev has simultaneously served in a number of corporate roles while also serving as a key government insider. He has a long history of involvement in natural resource companies, including oil, gas, and timber. Most famously, he’s been serving as CEO of Gazprom Inc., Russia’s government-owned gas monopoly, for the last eight years. That was an enormously important job, as so much of Russian politics, economics, and foreign relations are bound up in the country’s oil affairs. Gazprom recently founded its own media coporation as well, so Mr. Medvedev’s been a relevant player in presiding over the Russian state’s increasing control of the press.
Medvedev is interesting for his cynicism, however. As something of an outspoken capitalist, he’s long championed greater free-market reforms in the former Soviet Union, and has criticized the creeping tide of cronysim and statism. He’s even been critical of his own company’s monopoly, and doesn’t seem to view his own professional life—with its considerable overlap between business, politics, and media—as an ideal model for the future.
He contrasts with Putin’s Kremlin establishment in that he’s still a bit of an idealist who believes the post-Soviet future offers opportunities, as opposed to a darkly pragmatic realist like Putin, who believes Russia’s main interests lie in just consolidating the status quo and keeping the state strong and united.
How long a leash will Putin be willing to give him?
Until this week, the longest-serving prime minister in Europe was Patrick Bartholomew Ahern. Bertie, as he is better known, was elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland in 1997, and proceeded to serve three full terms in office—making him the country’s longest serving ruler since Eamon de Valera, the republic’s legendary founding father.
Irish politics are famously dull and unambitious—this is largely a product of Ireland’s post-independence fascination with isolationism and naval-gazing. In Ireland, the role of government is to manage the state, and not much else. This is why you don’t ever hear much about Irish statesmen or great Irish political trends—Irish politicians could generally care less about being relevant outside of the bureaucracy, let alone outside their country’s borders. Of the world’s major industrialized, English-speaking nations, Ireland is probably the one that is most easy to ignore. Which is unfortunate, because on some level we all really want to care about Ireland.
Ireland has two main political parties, both of which are basically left over factions from the Irish civil war of the late 1920’s. As such, it’s hard to say what they really stand for. Both are fairly liberal-centrist, and both are free-market. Both also have unpronounceable Galiec names, one is Fianna Fail (which means something to the effect of “Aweome Irish Soldiers of Destiny”) and Fine Gael (“Irish People are Awesome”). As is increasingly the case in western Europe, elections are really more about choosing which faction of politicians you trust to “run the country,” rather than a specific philosophy of governance.
The Finna Fail people were the party of de Valera, and have run the republic for most of its existence, with only brief one-term breaks here and there. No Fine Gael prime minister has ever served for more than a single term in office.
The last guy was John Bruton, who ruled from 1994 to 1997. His government was tainted by a bribery scandal, however, so he went down to defeat and Fianna Fail took power under Mr. Ahern (the ruling party in Ireland usually changes as a result of scandal). As Prime Minister (or Taoiseach as the Irish sometimes call it when they want to pretend to speak Gaelic), Ahern presided over a period of tremendous economic growth for Ireland, as well as closer integration into the EU establishment. Working with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, he was also a key player in the Northern Irish peace negotiations of the late 1990’s, which saw, among other things, the republic finally agree to acknowledge the soverignity of the British-controlled part of the island.
A pragmatic and skilled leader—but also bland and unideological—Ahern was one of those world leaders who defined a generation in his country while also failing to leave things much different than when he started.
In accordance with established custom, in his final months in office, Mr. Ahern’s government became tainted by a high-profile financial scandal, and he agreed to step down for the good of his party. On April 9 Brian Cowen was elected by Finna Fail to replace him, and was formally sworn in as PM on May 6.
The new Prime Minister takes “career politician” to a new level. Elected to parliament at age 24 after his father died, he has done else nothing since. During the 10 years of the Ahern administration he served in every cabinet position of note, including health, foreign affairs, and finance. I’m sure he’ll fit into the prime minister’s job just fine.
The photo above shows Prime Minister Ahern giving a bushel of Irish shamrocks to President Bush on St. Patrick’s day earlier this year. For many years it’s been customary for the Irish leader to come to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day and give the US President some clovers, in a gesture of Irish-American friendship.