After Putin – who ?

Which ever way the forthcoming election swings, Russians will soon be looking for a new leader. With much of the current elite either of retiring age or discredited with voters, Andrey Kolesnikov wonders what a future presidential run-off could look like.

The main item on the post-election agenda, leaving out a possible confrontation scenario in the immediate aftermath of the 4th March election, might be formulated as follows: who will emerge as the future political leader(s) of Russia? Even if Vladimir Putin has a more or less comfortable majority and continues to rule the country (given that we have no idea what his first steps will actually be), his continued popularity is in no way guaranteed. No one has yet been able to refute the hypothesis of the American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, recently acknowledged by Mikhail Dmitriev and Sergey Belanovsky of Russia’s Centre for Strategic Research: when a country grows in prosperity its emergent middle class begins to demand political freedom. In other words, discontent with Putin among the educated urban classes is here to stay. And if, on the contrary, the oil prices drop and the new head of state is unable to maintain his increased social obligations at their previous level, we might begin to see unrest among his current core supporters, public sector employees.  

But whatever happens, during Putin’s coming term both the political elite and the electorate will be looking for new leaders. The present election race includes a couple of dinosaurs from the 90s, on the home straight of their political careers, who have spent the last decade sustaining the illusion of a political opposition and inevitably coming second and third in the popularity stakes – the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the head of the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The LDPR is defined by its leader and is unlikely to survive the departure of the elderly Zhirinovsky.

NAvalny_Rogozin

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (right) is a well-known and charismatic leader of moderate nationalists. The concept of the Russian national state has also been promoted by one of the leaders of the anti-Putin opposition movement, Alexei Navalny (left). Could they run against each other in the 2018 presidential election?

The Communists will probably need to restructure, under pressure from competition in the shape of other communist and social democratic groups who are bound to emerge if electoral legislation is liberalised and small parties allowed to register. The core Communist Party supporter base, still hankering after the ideals of orthodox Stalinism, and whose lives have been defined by nostalgia for the USSR, is aging, and will have ceased to influence Russia’s political climate by the end of the decade.  

‘Given the right conditions we might see the creation of a genuine liberal party representing both right- and left-wing tendencies… and its figurehead could be Kudrin.’

The future prospects of Putin’s other election rivals – the leader of the ostensibly social democratic ‘Just Russia’ party Sergey Mironov and the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who has exchanged the alpine comforts of Courchevel for the biting cold of Moscow’s politically charged streets - are also unclear. Their role lies somewhere between classic ‘spoiling’ (in Putin’s favour) and genuine political ambition which they nevertheless have to constantly stifle.

The influential leader of the left liberal ‘Yabloko’ party Grigory Yavlinsky, who was refused registration as an official presidential candidate, is seen as a possible alternative figure in the current situation, but he too is unlikely to maintain his amazing political longevity until the end of the coming presidential term. And unless ‘Yabloko’ joins some new large scale liberal alliance the party will become marginalised.

The right-liberal flank, which the Kremlin machine under arch manipulator Vladislav Surkov has been saving for itself, for a rainy day, is still empty. It cannot be ruled out that after substantial reformatting this niche might be occupied by the ‘party of power’ United Russia, largely discredited after the parliamentary elections and handed over to Dmitry Medvedev by Vladimir Putin. And in this guise it could become the power base for Medvedev’s own political ambitions – providing of course that his further prime-ministerial career is at least partially successful. For the moment, after committing political suicide by voluntarily relinquishing power to Putin, our lame duck President has seen his popularity in the polls drop from 18% in July 2011 to less than one percent today. 

Obviously, the right-liberal position, controlled more or less as it is by the Kremlin, might be claimed by Mikhail Prokhorov. But his oligarchic aura, glamour and links with government, not to mention his eclectic political policies, might alienate many upholders of liberal values.

‘There is one undoubted figure of authority on the streets, Aleksey Navalny – but there is no guarantee that he will be as consistently popular in real, offline politics as on the net.’

Given the right conditions we might of course see the creation of a genuine liberal party representing both right- and left-wing tendencies, which could only become a significant electoral force if it united under its banner a number of potential leaders, from 90s liberals Vladimir Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov to Grigory Yavlinsky and former finance minister Aleksey Kudrin. Such a party could be started from scratch, and its figurehead could be Kudrin, a man who steered clear of politics but acquired mass charisma overnight when he made critical remarks in public about President Medvedev. He has close links both with Vladimir Putin and with the architect of Russian privatisation, the main ‘shadow’ liberal Anatoly Chubais, but over the last few months he has become very much his own man.

Another front man could be Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young but experienced politician whose Republican Party, outlawed at present in Russia, was recently recognised by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The only problem is that the party could still be refused reinstatement in Russia despite the Strasbourg ruling. In an interview given to me for ‘Novaya Gazeta’, Ryzhkov commented: ‘We basically need a united liberal party. I personally think this should include PARNAS (a movement bringing together several liberal leaders, including Ryzhkov himself – A.K.), ‘Yabloko’, Kudrin, Prokhorov – all the liberals. If the Republican Party is reinstated then I will offer it as a united platform for everyone. We have already been holding talks with everybody on this subject. And if they won’t reinstate the party, we’ll start a new one.’          

Battle between two future giants

It is possible that new leaders will emerge out of the protest rallies, although it is unlikely that they will come from among journalists or writers. There is one undoubted figure of authority on the streets, Aleksey Navalny – an internet warrior against corruption, a charismatic character with very eclectic views, including nationalist ones, a man of great reason and intellect. But there is no guarantee that he will be as consistently popular in real, offline politics as on the net.

Putin’s ruling elite may also put forward their own leaders. One very promising candidate out of this circle would be Dmitry Rogozin, a populist politician who has built his career on nationalism and the exploitation of voters’ quasi Soviet imperial sentiments, and who has recently been dragged back home from comfortable exile as Russia’s envoy to NATO. In January he was appointed deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for the defence industry, and immediately began to make political pronouncements of an anti-Western, anti-American nature.

It would be easy to imagine a battle between two future giants: Rogozin, the Kremlin’s man, and Navalny from the counter-elite. But this would not be the best outcome for Russia.

However, our new leaders might be recruited far from the corridors of power or the streets of Moscow. They might well be completely new people. It is even possible that the test tube where they are fertilised will be the Russian provinces.

About the author

Moscow based journalist, editor of the op-ed section of Novaya Gazyeta, columnist of the Vedomosti daily and www.gazeta.ru web magazine. Author of six books, including biography of controversial politician Anatoly Chubais