With presidential elections in Russia now just two years away, Russian press is rife with speculation about who will take over the presidency from Putin. The press has dubbed the Kremlin’s efforts to promote a likely candidate as ‘Operation Successor’. As I tried to get a take on this political operation of sorts, several key points have become clear.
First, opposition parties seem to have become irrelevant in Russia’s current political landscape. Second, it is almost unanimously believed that Putin will be able to choose his successor. Third, the traditional conflict between Russia’s liberals and hardliners seems to have faded somewhat, and will not be determinative in Putin’s preference for the next president of Russia. Fourth, despite the fascination in both the Russian and international press with the idea that Putin could somehow stay in power after his two terms are up, Putin himself has shown little interest in engineering such an outcome. Fifth, there is nearly as much speculation about what role Putin will play in Russian politics after 2008 as there is speculation about his likely successor. Sixth, Dmitry Medvedev seems most likely at this point to become the next president of Russia.
- Opposition parties have become largely irrelevant in the face of Putin’s popularity, and there seems to be little concern that the absence of a vibrant opposition could be detrimental. In local and regional elections last weekend, Putin’s United Russia won 197 out of 359 seats in regional legislatures. The remaining seats were distributed among dozens of small national and regional parties.
Opinion polls similarly indicate that Putin’s United Russia party has few viable rivals. In October 2005 a poll showed that of the 37 parties registered in Moscow, only 17 will run in the next Duma elections, set to take place in December 2007. However, only five of them have a real chance to overcome the 10 percent threshold to serve in the body, and it is possible that only three will end up with seats. According to a poll taken last month, if Duma elections were held in February, 47 percent of the country would have supported the United Russia party, 17 percent would have supported the Communist party and just 9 percent would have voted for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. The nationalist Motherland Party and the liberal Yabloko Party polled just 4 percent each.
The outlook for the opposition in the 2008 presidential election is even bleaker. When queried about their choice for Russia’s next President, 6 percent of respondents said they would vote for Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov, 3 percent for Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 3 percent for former Prime Minister Mikhial Kasyanov, and just 1 percent for Sergei Glaziev from the Motherland Party.
Clearly, Putin’s United Russian party is in a position to retain power in the 2007-2008 federal elections.
- Putin is widely, if not unanimously, perceived as Russia’s kingmaker. Putin received over 70 percent of the vote in 2004, and he still enjoys immense popularity. Putin is perceived as a decisive and pragmatic leader –especially in contrast to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin—and he is credited with improving the nation’s economy while still protecting Russia’s traditional spheres of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. This perception will certainly increase if, as seems likely, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is overturned this month in federal elections there and the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yuschenko wins the presidency.
Speculation in Russia is thus not about who will win the presidency, but rather about who Putin will choose as his successor.
- The conflict between the liberals and siloviki, while still important, does not, at least yet, seem to be a driving force behind Putin’s choice of a successor. Since his election in 2000, Putin has had to balance two primary forces within the Kremlin, the pro-Western, liberal reformers, who are largely comprised of the nation’s oligarchs and business tycoons, and the siloviki, the nationalist faction made up of military leaders and former KGB. Putin has maintained the peace by drawing both advisors and policies from both camps. Moves toward greater economic participation with the West have satisfied the oligarchs, while policies to counter U.S. influence in Central Asia and an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Chechen militants have mollified the latter.
Putin’s recent appointment of Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov as deputy Prime Minters was largely seen as reflective of this balancing act. Ivanov, who retained his post as Defense Minister, gives the siloviki a powerful promoter the government. Medvedev, who retained his chairmanship of state energy giant Gazprom, is a pragmatic reformer along the lines of Putin.
The appointment of the two officials was also believed to reflect Putin’s preference for who might succeed him as president. Neither Medvedev nor Ivanov has a natural political constituency and their appointments are considered ‘trial runs’ at leadership and an opportunity to gain a wider following. The youthful Medvedev (he is only 40 years old) especially has lacked the capacity to gain a public following from his prior position as head of the Presidential administration in the Kremlin. Although prime ministers in Russia are more managers than executives, the two presidential hopefuls will have an opportunity to involve themselves much more extensively in domestic issues than was previously possible.
However, both candidates are pragmatists in their support for the liberals and siloviki. Neither is an ideologue and either would likely be acceptable to liberals and siloviki alike. As long as Ivanov and Medvedev are the presidential front-runners, the schism between the two groups will not be determinative of which receives Putin’s eventual support.
- There is very little talk of a constitutional amendment to allow Putin a third term. Putin has said nothing to suggest he supports such a measure. Absent a constitutional amendment, there has been some speculation that a reunification of Russia and Belarus could provide the structural conditions for Putin to assume the presidency of such a new federal structure, although the unification itself seems unlikely, and the terms under which that unification could take place extremely speculative.
While unrelated to the issue of Putin retaining the presidency, there is also interesting speculation that Putin may resign just prior to the December 2007 Duma elections in order to combine the parliamentary elections with the Presidential elections scheduled for March 2008. This would help ensure that United Russia wins both the majority in the Duma and the presidency. The other oft repeated argument for this move is that it would be seen in the West as a boost for democracy in Russia.
- The question of what position Putin will have after 2008 is the subject of nearly as intense speculation as the question of who will succeed him. Because the Russian political system –partly as the result of Putin’s own reforms—gives such a preponderance of power to the president, no other political position seems powerful or substantive enough for Putin to assume and retain influence. Putin himself noted at a press conference recently that the post of Prime Minister in Russia is a technical position and should remain that way. He further noted that successful development of Russia’s economy necessitates a dominant executive branch.
While many have speculated that Putin could head Gazprom after he leaves the presidency, this speculation seems more driven by the media’s fascination with both Putin and Russia’s business elites than anything else. Putin himself, trained as a lawyer, says that in neither character nor training does he feel himself to be a businessman.
There has also been some speculation that Putin could head the Russian Supreme Court in order to help bolster legal institutions in the country. While such a position might be a better fit to Putin’s formal education, it is difficult to imagine that heading up the 19 member body would befit someone whose tenure as President has been marked by selective application of the law to achieve political ends (as in the Yukos case, for example).
It seems most likely that whatever position he takes up after 2008 will be one from which he can still exert influence on Russian political and economic development –assuming, that is, that his choice for President is elected and is willing to govern in cooperation with Putin’s powerful influence.
- Given all these factors, Dmitry Medvedev seems like the obvious front-runner to succeed Putin. Like Putin, he is an economic liberal with a pragmatic conception of the role of state power in the evolving capitalist landscape in the country. As Chairman of the Board of Gazprom, he has both a clear conception of the importance of the oil and gas sector to the state, and also of the role that the state plays in economic development of the nation. His appointment as first deputy Prime Minister late last year affords him to gain the one thing he is missing –a public and popular persona. The first deputy Prime Minister is in charge of agriculture, education, and social programs, issue which will allow him –given sufficient state support—to become widely recognized as not only an oligarch, but also someone who has a clear sense for the condition and needs of ordinary Russians.
Medvedev also is said to be modest in his aspirations, making it more likely that he would be willing to govern in cooperation with Putin’s continued presence in the Russian political scene. Putin seems to have made the selection of Medvedev more likely by his recent criticism of the military’s failure in several high-profile army hazing cases. These comments make less likely that the other Presidential front-runner, Sergei Ivanov, could gain the popular support necessary to take the presidency.
The first 15 years of Russian democracy have been tumultuous ones, made more placid in the past several years by booming oil revenues. Should those fortunes reverse, either through a collapse in oil prices or a precipitous decline in Russian production, the popularity of Putin and his ability to prosecute ‘Operation Successor’ could diminish as well.
Regardless, the development of Russian capitalism and democracy still faces immense challenges. The next Russian president will face a daunting civil and political landscape. As one Russian commentator recently noted:
People see clearly that they are robbed at privately-owned as well at state enterprises (being underpaid as much as three or four or even five times). They still demand not fair collective agreements and worthy salaries, not improvement of working conditions, but a free ticket, free medicine, cheap gasoline, costless accommodation, a hotel voucher to a sanatorium. Judging by the questions and wishes, put forward by the citizens in spite of almost 15 years of adopting capitalism, we mostly remain ‘Soviet people’ that construe the government as the large ‘Social Provision Department’, and the president as a ‘do-gooder’.