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Vladimir Putin forever

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
2 October 2007

Russia's political analysts have for months been speculating about the identity of President Vladimir Putin's successor after his second term comes to an end with the elections of March 2008. The rest of the world's media too have been part of the guessing-game: at nearly every opportunity Moscow's foreign correspondents had for a direct encounter with the president, Putin would be asked if he intended to initiate constitutional changes that would allow him to run for the third time.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989.

He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Among Zygmunt Dzieciolowski's recent articles on openDemocracy:

"How Russia is ruled"(14 March 2007)

"New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

"Boris Yeltsin, history man" (24 April 2007)

"Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

"Russia's immigration challenge" (15 June 2007)

"Tatyana Zaslavskaya's moment" (20 July 2007)Nyet, nyet, Vladimir Vladimirovich would answer: the constitution is the holy thing, it cannot be changed for just one man. After each such statement the frenzied international chatter and rumour would resume: Putin (the most popular narrative had it) would play the role of Russia's Deng Xiaoping, staying in power for several more years, perhaps even seeking re-election in 2012...

A media game

Within Russia itself, at least to long-term or less illusioned analysts, the picture always looked subtly different. Russian observers of the Putin enigma learned a long time ago that the most important decisions about the future of the country are always taken in the shadows, in backrooms. At the same time they had an opportunity to examine the skills of the Kremlin's spin-doctors in action on several occasions.

These two factors brought them to a different conclusion: there would be no simple solution to the conundrum of Putin's endgame and the presidential transition. Instead, there was a default assumption that the question of Putin's succession would be resolved in a new and innovative way. Too much was at stake to believe that the Kremlin's clans would straightforwardly allow a free and democratic election between rival candidates with unrestricted access to the electronic media.

However, Vladimir Putin was also aspiring to the role of respected international statesman; a crude, transparent "fix" was also out of the question. In this light, it was expected that the succession-scenario prepared by leading Kremlin strategists (such as Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky) would at least attempt to create a virtuoso spectacle that at least imitated democratic electoral procedures.

These calculations did not stop even serious "Kremlinologists" devoting waterfalls of words to guessing the name of the post-Putin leader. The sudden "semi-presidential" public-relations exercise which Russia's leading electronic media conducted on behalf of the two senior deputy prime ministers (Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov) is a case in point. There were also mini-flurries on behalf of such unlikely candidates as St Petersburg's governor Valentina Matviyenko, the head of Russia's railways Vladimir Yakunin, and the relatively unknown deputy prime minister Sergei Naryshkin.

This speculation notwithstanding, it was clear from the beginning that the solution to the Russian presidential puzzle would have to meet some basic conditions. The huge concentration of powers in the Kremlin's top job meant that it could not be allowed to fall into the hands of a dangerous reformer: somebody who might inaugurate changes that led to a redistribution of power and wealth between oligarchic clans and structures. The late-18th-century precedent involving the Emperor Paul's efforts to depart from the legacy of his mother Catherine II was a warning to be avoided. Even worse, the merest prospect that a successor to Putin might initiate some kind of democratic thaw that could pave the way for the early release from prison of the ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was enough to cause Kremlin bureaucrats sleepless nights.

A potent decision

Some weeks ago in Moscow I heard a private "lecture" from Dmitri Muratov, the editor-in-chief of the last independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, on the subject of the chinovniki - Russia's new bureaucratic ruling class which has emerged during Vladimir Putin's presidency, after the years of chaos under Boris Yeltsin.

Muratov offered a pointed illustration of the influence and role of the chinovniki: that the highest number of candidates seeking admission to Russian universities in 2007 applied to schools teaching taxes, customs and administration specialists. A few years ago, said Muratov, young people preferred to study banking or computers.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society under Vladimir Putin:

Alena V Ledeneva, "How Russia really works" (16 January 2002)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (26 June 2006)

Christoph Neidhart, "Vladimir Putin, ‘Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)

Mary Dejevsky, "After Putin" (21 September 2007) Another friend in Moscow, who for years worked for Russia's electricity monopoly Rao-Yes, gave me a further surprise: he was moving to become a specialist with the Russian ministry of industry and energy. A secure government job was (he said with evident happiness) far preferable to the risks connected with implementing market reforms in the private sector. He also had no doubts that his new position would bring him more power and a far largerincome - and that he will earn more than just his regular salary.

These two conversations help explain my reaction to the atmosphere at the (Pro-Kremlin) United Russia party convention on 1 October 2007, when Vladimir Putin announced that he was ready to lead its list in the next parliamentary election - and that he would be ready under certain conditions to become Russia's next prime minister.

I have no doubt that the enthusiasm and applause of the party delegates were real, and not (as in Soviet communist party gatherings under Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko, for example) skilfully orchestrated from behind the scenes. It is partly that United Russia is precisely an organisation of the chinovniki, representing officials from regional and central administrations. But is also the case that there is a broader, potent social and political momentum behind Putin's decision to stay at or near the centre of decision-making after March 2008.

A moment to savour

For the Russia of the chinovniki, Putin's declaration has come as a true relief. The members of this elite want Putin's Russia to continue; as long as he is at the head of the council of ministers and able to control the weak, loyal and disciplined president in the Kremlin (perhaps Viktor Zubkov), any danger of chaos will be averted. The rules of the game Putin has established will for some time remain unchanged.

True, oligarchical groups and clans will keep competing, fighting (for example) over lucrative licenses for oil exploration or fat government orders. But the very foundation and construction of Putin's state will remain safe. The political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky (who runs the National Strategy Institute), clearly disappointed by the perspective of Russia being ruled by one man for the rest of his life, summed up his feelings: "Now we can expect Putin's third, fourth, fifth and sixth term".

Why did it happen this way? At some point, Vladimir Putin himself must have realised that sophisticated "transition" scenarios designed by Kremlin spin-doctors were not his best option. He has experienced unpleasant setbacks for Russia in Ukraine and Georgia that spinning could do do nothing to avoid. Perhaps that is why in the end he preferred the simplest scenario in the homeland: one that avoided all risks.

The Russian prime minister of the near future, currently enjoying a 75% popularity rating, will remain the nation's supreme leader. With the most important decisions of the current election season already taken, nothing can distract Vladimir Vladimirovich from celebrating his 55th birthday on 7 October 2007. More than 10,000 activists from the youth organisation Nashi are planning to celebrate with him on the streets of Moscow. Their cheers and salutes will eclipse the far less visible gathering that will take place on the same day at Pushkin Square, to mark the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's murder.

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