Operation Successor: another twist expected

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The latest opinion poll done by ROMIR Monitoring, reported in Novoe Vremya magazine, produced a crushing result for Russia’s politicians and political consultants: 86% of respondents said they can’t see any alternatives to Vladimir Putin as president of Russia at this time.

The remaining 14% of respondents, who did name some potential candidates, chose Vladimir Zhirinovsky (4%), Gennadi Zyuganov (2%), and Sergei Shoigu or Dmitri Rogozin (1% each).

Only 31% of respondents were absolutely opposed to the idea of Putin staying on as president after 2008; 60% said they would be prepared to support him if he attempts to remain in power.

Ordinary citizens aren’t lagging behind the political consultants in suggesting how this might be achieved: 28% of respondents said it might be possible to amend the Constitution and allow Putin to be elected for a third term; 10% suggested amending the Constitution to enable Putin to stay on as national leader in the office of prime minister; and 10% expressed support for merging with Belarus and electing Putin as president of the new country. What’s more, when ROMIR Monitoring asked for opinions about restoring the monarchy in Russia (with Putin on the throne, of course), 31% of respondents said this would be helpful for Russia. They have different reasons for this opinion: 10% say it would symbolize the nation’s spiritual unity, 7% see it as homage to Russia’s age-old traditions, 4% want a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, and 4% want an absolute monarchy like the Russian Empire.

As for Vladimir Putin himself, he stated once again the other day that he will not run in the 2008 election.

The question was asked by Nikolai Zlobin, director for Russian and Asian programs at Center for Defense Information (Washington), at a meeting in the Kremlin. Afterwards, Zlobin gladly related the conversation to a Profil magazine reporter: “I asked if he is going to run for president in 2008 and if he will amend the Constitution. He gave me a sly look, saying: Do you want me to do so? I said he was confusing me. He said: I’m only asking. Then I said: It’s my prerogative to ask questions here! Give a short answer – yes or no?”

So Putin confirmed publicly once again that he will not run for re-election or amend the Constitution. Then he added, “As for the government team which is currently in power and wants to remain there, they will have to face competition if they want to remain. Nobody can forbid them to do so – that’s democracy.”

Zlobin stressed that “these two negative answers from Putin are changing a lot in the Russian political arena,” given they were made in the presence of several dozen Western political analysts concerned with Russia. “If he goes back on his words, I think this would be the end of his political career in the West. The image he has been consistently promoting over the past six years would be destroyed. And Putin is very well aware of it,” said Nikolai Zlobin with confidence. “That is why, without any false modesty, I can say that I did a very good thing.”

Yet, he confessed that after the meeting his colleagues told him that he should have taken that tone with the president. But Putin did not seem to be offended by the undiplomatic tone and “never frowned during the meeting. On the contrary, he was charmingly smiling all the time… He definitely bewitched us, I mean positively. Surely, he is a professional…”

This professionalism of Putin, that is his ability to say what his interlocutors are expecting him to say at the moment, keeps many Russian politicians and political experts cautious.

The strongest doubts were expressed by the Communists. “It is not the first time that the president has said that he would run for a third term. He makes similar statements regularly once in a few months, ” said Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the central committee of the Communist Party, in an interview to Moskovsky Komsomolets. “Naturally, there rises a question: does it mean that the more the president says “no,” the more the government wants him to say “yes”? I would not close that issue for the time being.”

“Of course, Putin is being persuaded to run for a third time because they do want to go to jail,” said Dmitri Oreshkin, leader of the Merkator Group, to Moskovsky Komsomolets.

The president’s associates “have established a system of values in which you own property as long as you hold power,” according to Oreshkin. This is the main reason, he observes, why the influential groups “are following Putin everywhere singing praises like “Without you everything would collapse.” If Putin rejects, this means that “he has common sense and courage to resist the influence of the importunate milieu.”

Yet, there are apprehensions that “closer to summer 2007 this choir of government officials who call on the president not to step down” may become “so powerful that its devilish music would rock the nation,” says Ilya Milshtein in Novoye Vremya.

Milshtein does not share Zlobin’s confidence that refusing to run for a third term Putin is primarily guided by the care to save his image in the West.

“According to meticulous calculations by Vladimir Pribylovsky, the attitude of the West’s establishment depends directly on oil prices. A price of $50 a barrel makes them disregard Putin’s abolition of elections for regional leaders; a price of $80 a barrel would make it all right for Putin to run for a third term; a price of $150 would keep them silent even if Putin drops a nuclear bomb on Chechnya and publicly executes both Gennady Zyuganov and Grigori Yavlinsky on Red Square.” Milshtein notes that perestroika started with a drop in oil prices.

Indeed, on the one hand, “in terms of economic freedom Russia has gone down from the 114th to the 115th place (out of 127 available positions), sharing it with Rwanda and Togo, according to the Economic Freedom of the World report, the biggest economic freedom survey, which is annually prepared by a group of researches under the leadership of Fraser Institute (Canada),” says Kommersant.

On the other hand, “the increasing role of the government is seen by foreign operators as a positive factor which reduces possible risks to a minimum,” Nezavisimay Gazeta observes as it comments on a $7.5 billion loan issued by a consortium of western banks to state-owned Rosneftegaz and Rosneft.

At any rate, the experts approached by Nezavisimaya Gazeta agree that if a company which is not controlled by the government and has great debts wished to take out such a loan, Western banks would be unlikely to agree. Thus, “the interference of the government into the economy, which was strongly criticized in the West as an impediment for investments, is now the actual reason why the West is investing into our economy,” the newspaper says.

Nationalization in the oil industry, the takeover of Yuganskneftegaz by Rosneft, as well as a possible acquisition of Sibneft by Gazprom or Rosneft are acknowledged facts which do not embarrass anyone.

“From the point of view of the international experience, suppression of democracy unfortunately is not likely to scare off investors, for profits seem to be more important than political views,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The example of China is very eloquent. “Apparently, investors withdrew from Russia because the situation in the country was unstable, and growing economic force of the government ensures stability and confidence for investors,” concludes the newspaper.

In the briefing with western political analysts, along with the refusal to run for a third time Vladimir Putin made another remarkable statement: “I will leave the Kremlin, but not Russia,” Expert says. The magazine offers the following interpretation of these words: “We will do our best to ensure continuity of government and policy.”

Besides, Expert highlights one more significant point – a “remark made in passing that ‘if any Kremlin team wants to compete for power, let it do so.'” According to the magazine, this probably means “alienation of the official Kremlin from “siloviki” and consequently small chances for the latter to win the 2008 election. Obviously, this is of enormous importance for the business.”

“Vladimir Putin simply wants his inevitable resignation to be viewed as a great mercy and a triumph of democracy, both in Russia and the international community.” (Quoted from Vremya Novostei).

Moreover, this state of things eliminates the impression of a president in his second term being a lame duck, Belkovsky adds. At a recent press conference, Stanislav Belkovsky assured its participants that the presidential administration assumes that Putin will not run for a third term. As for numerous possible scenarios of extending Putin’s rule, they are being discussed in the media just for appearance’s sake. This situation results from lack of agreement within the government on the possible successor.

Belkovskty believes that “what is actually being discussed is the possibility of Putin resigning early, in September 2007, and holding the presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time.” As for the successor, the Kremlin is unlikely to decide on that before spring or summer 2007, says Belkovsky.

Belkovsky named seven potential candidates which are seeking approval of the government. These are Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and speaker of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov (the latter seems to be “preferred” by Vladimir Putin but “inspires horror” in Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, according to Novye Izvestia).

Next on the list are two regional leaders – Aleksander Khloponin of the Krasnoyarsk Territory (who shares the Kremlin’s ideological views, reports Vremya Novostei) and Aleksander Tkachev (he is supported by Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration and aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska, according to Belkovsky).

The list of candidates also includes another “favorite of the president” (quoted from Novye Izvestia) – Dmitri Kozak, presidential envoy for the Southern federal district.

There is also somebody from the Prosecutor General’s Office – either Vladimir Ustinov himself or his deputy Vladimir Kolesnikov. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is not considered.

This political season will see the competition between the potential successors, Stanislav Belkovsky says. Belkovsky’s his draft proposal of the Constitution is addressed to the prospective president as the current Constitution has been nothing but “anti-crisis regulations” adopted in the crucial period of the country’s history, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says. In the view of National Strategy Institute experts, the present Constitution has no further potential “in terms of Russia’s future development.”

Belkovsky proclaimed his ideas about the state management in Russia many times. According to his version of the Constitution, the president enjoys the status of an “uncrowned monarch: he remains head of state, but ceases to be head of the executive power, Novye Izvestia reports. Therefore, he is no longer responsible for fulfillment of socioeconomic programs. This must be the business of the government which is formed by the Duma except for the defense and security departments, which remain in the jurisdiction of the president.

Belkovsky proposes to form the Federation Council on the basis of direct elections, and it will deal mainly with approval of draft laws. As for regional leaders, the authors of the proposal suggest that their offices should be abolished. It is supposed that the regions will be governed by regional governments formed by regional legislatures, and the president will have the authority to dismiss them.

The president will be elected for a term of seven years and may be re-elected as many times as he wants. However, not everyone will be able to put up a candidate for the presidential election – only the president in effect, both chambers of the parliament, and a new state government body – the Supreme Council of National Unity. This state body is the main innovation proposed by Belkovsky.

It is supposed that the Supreme Council of National Unity will be formed by three “leading social corporations” – the Armed Forces, the Orthodox Church, and the academic elite. Its chief concern will be “continuity of government,” and therefore it will be enabled to put up candidates for president as well as impeach the president in effect.

Between elections this almighty body will see to the freedom of speech and ensure respectful treatment of public moral values in the media. There is another noteworthy point in the Constitution proposed by Belkovsky Nezavisimaya Gazeta: it puts forward a new concept of state sovereignty which eliminates the priority of the international laws over the constitutional laws.

Furthermore, the proposed Constitution factors the principle of the inalienability of sovereignty, which means, for instance, removal of Russia from under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. According to Stanislav Belkovsky, it is necessary to move from the human rights concept, which is becoming a tool for colonial expansion, to the concept of civil rights.

Meanwhile, Belkovsky’s long-standing rival Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Effective Policy Foundation, hurried to refute his proposals. First, he disproved the supposition that Putin’s successor will be someone from the Kremlin and even promised that “selection of successors will be public,” Nezavisimaya gazeta says.

Putin might resort to the once tested scenario of successor’s appointment only if “he wanted to ruin his political career, but he is not a self-murderer,” stressed Pavlovsky (quoted in Izvestia). Thus, various candidates, including those named by Belkovsky, “stand no chances to be nominated, though in Putin’s place I would not those delusions among his colleagues and friends.”

Numerous candidates discussed by the political elite mean that “the government which has been consistently trampling the political arena over the past few years realized, at least by word of mouth, that it had tried too hard,” says Izvestia.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a well-known political analyst, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “I think this is an attempt to cover one’s tracks or, as they call it, “to save a candidate.” Roughly speaking, the Kremlin fears an early start of a successor’s campaign. “On the one hand, the successor should be prominent, he should be popular – but on the other hand, he must be shielded from criticism.”

Irina Khakamada (in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets): “This question is being solved in the Kremlin and there is ongoing stiff competition. Different candidates are named but it seems to me that Vladimir Putin will follow the policy of Boris Yeltsin: he will make a completely unexpected choice. Putin often makes unexpected things. There will be a twist with the appointment of the successor, I am sure.”

However, Russian voters are accustomed to the twists of the Russian government and take them with philosophical indifference. According to Levada-center, 83% of Russians think that the country is governed not by the people, as is written in the Constitution, but a “small group of people who engage in applied political engineering” just to retain power, Izvestia reports. According to the data provided by ROMIR Monitoring published in Novoye Vremya, this figure is even higher: only one percent of respondents believe that Russia has government by the people.

This is probably why there are so many supporters of restoring monarchy in Russia.

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