MOSCOW BLOG: Gaius Octavius assumes the throne

By bne IntelliNews May 7, 2008

bne -

Today, May 7, Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev takes over from President Vladimir Putin as Russia's third president. It is a remarkable event and one that no one really expected to happen. Putin has willingly done something no other leader in the CIS dared to do: he has stepped down at the end of his constitutionally allotted two terms and handed off almost complete power to someone else.

This decision flies in the face of ongoing accusations of Putin's backsliding into authoritarianism, although to be fair to the critics his decision to take up the post of prime minister is maybe not the most democratic option that Putin could have chosen when looking for a new job, as he will retain considerable power. At best, Putin has taken a half step towards greater democracy.

The key question going forward is not how much power Putin will have, but what Medvedev will do with the real power that he inherits and how the two men can share power without coming to blows? Clearly, Medvedev is no puppet and sources in the Kremlin have repeatedly said he has his own ideas and own agenda - he will attempt to be a real president.

The problem with commentating on this transfer of power is that it has become surrounded by hype and even hyperbole to the point where most of the discussion has become emotional. In an attempt to get some perspective, let's compare today's Russia with Rome under Gaius Julius Caesar, as there are several striking parallels.

Rome wasn't built in a day

The first and most obvious similarity is that when Putin took over in 2000 there was no functioning government in Russia. Boris Yeltsin had allowed regional governors too much freedom in return for their support and the oligarchs insinuated themselves into the Kremlin where they were helping themselves to the state's most valuable assets. Putin needed to take control.

Rome was also constantly at war while the government struggled to administer the expanding empire. As he returned from Gaul in 50 BC, Caesar also faced political opponents trying to block him from taking up another consulship by putting him on trial and sending him into exile if they could. So he crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy, not because he was seeking power per se, but he felt he had no alternative if he was to stay in the game. The motives of the two men were different, but the end result was the same.

Like Caesar, Putin's power rests on two pillars: his personal popularity with the people and the backing of the army. After 10 years of campaigning, Caesar commanded the loyalty of his legions and, likewise, Putin has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the armed forces; fresh in the Kremlin's mind is that it was the army which decided in Yeltsin's favour during a bloody showdown with the communist-dominated Duma in 1993.

It's no coincidence that Putin appointed his long-time ally and the other potential presidential candidate Sergei Ivanov as defence minister. It's also no coincidence that the state's de facto industrial holding Rosoboronexport also happens to be the state-owned arms export agency. The Kremlin is planning to invest more into reequipping the army in the next decade than it's going to invest in building badly-needed new power stations.

It's probably significant that Ivanov was not put forward as a presidential candidate. Remember that during his two terms Putin always used Ivanov as a tool, to float controversial foreign policy balloons and the like, never Medvedev. The two men are very close. Putin has been preparing the ground in preparation for his move to the PM's job and a number of changes have been quietly pushed through to bolster the office. However, should Putin clash with Medvedev then the combination of Putin at the head of government, backed by Ivanov who commands the loyalty of the army is a pretty formidable combination.

It is a triumvirate of sorts, like those that both Caesar and Augustus joined in their early careers, with Ivanov as the junior partner. It both contains the ambitions of any one member of the triumvirate, but also gives the three of them a greater hold over the rest of the elite.

The Senate

Russia, like Rome, is ruled by a elite that clings to power through a combination of corruption, nepotism and brute force. And like Rome, the people have a real, albeit muted, voice in politics. However, this system of government breeds more corruption, inefficiency and waste.

Both Putin and Caesar were reformers. Putin has made a great deal of progress in revamping the tax code and the financial system, but most of the other reforms, like the judiciary and the administration, have barely been touched. Both men made real improvements but both were limited in their effectiveness by the autocratic nature of their rule.

Medvedev's faces a situation not unlike that faced by Augustus, Caesar's adopted son and successor. Augustus was not a strong man and a poor general, but he excelled as a politician. He inherited much of his power and the reform programme from Caesar, but moved at a glacial pace, building consensus at each step. He understood that to maintain power he needed to keep the people happy, but also co-opt the aristocratic elite, or he would end up like his great uncle covered in blood on the Fields of Mars.

Augustus created the Republic's first civil service, set up the first public institutions and left the Senate to manage much of the empire. By doing so he created lucrative and prestigious jobs for an aristocratic civil service that aligned their interests with his rule. These measures also played well to the gallery: amongst other things, Augustus founded and paid for Rome's first professional fire service that was hugely popular with the hoi polloi. However, he retained command of the legions in Gaul, just to the north of Italy, throughout his rule, which was the real source of his power.

And Roman flourished under Augustus' Pax Romana, thanks to what historians say was history's first example of an attempt to create an honest government.

Starting from more or less the same place, Putin has already made good progress with the same programme. The oligarchs opposed him when he took over, but since the arrest of Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin has successfully managed to co-opt them. Men like Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman are all conducting their business in concert with the Kremlin's long-term strategic goals. In a very imperial manner, Putin regularly holds one-on-one meetings with the leading oligarchs to discuss their plans.

This is exactly how ancient Rome operated: rich men were expected to pursue public projects at their own expense and, as there was no civil service to speak of - these men would use their businesses, friends and slaves to fulfil their public duties.

But Medvedev takes on more difficult reforms than Putin has attempted, as he has to build a working government where none exists. He clearly laid out his programme in a speech in Krasnoyarsk at the start of the year and these are the same sorts of issues that Augustus had to tackle.

How stable is the form of power sharing? Caesar's triumvirate with Crassus and Pompei collapsed as the latter began to hate each other. Augustus' triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus also faired badly: Lepidus was clearly the junior member of the team and was eventually sidelined. Augustus was bent on taking complete power for himself and so the triumvirate eventually collapsed into civil war.

However, Augustus showed that power sharing can work, as he gave much of his power to his childhood friend Agrippa, who could have ousted Augustus but never acted. Much now depends on Putin's judgement of character: is Medvedev really as loyal as he looks?

Of course the real losers from Augustus' rise and reforms were the Roman citizens, who ended up losing what little democratic power they had. But they were happy to trade their votes for more stability, prosperity and visible improvements in the quality of life - precisely the same sentiments shared by most Russians today.

A three-legged stool is more stable than a two- or one-legged one (even if the third leg is weak), but Rome's later history shows that even this solution is no long-term solution. It is impossible to forecast what Putin's long-term plan is - and he has shown himself to be a cautious and careful planner. (In this he is more like Augustus than Caesar). The elegant solution to all these problems is to move Russia from a presidential republic to a parliamentary democracy. And by accepting the office of prime minister on May 8, Putin has already taken a step in this direction - but it's still not clear where this road ends.

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MOSCOW BLOG: Gaius Octavius assumes the throne

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