Further on the Year 2008 Problem: Vladimir Putin – a Deng Xiaoping or a "Sun Emperor"?

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“Putin has every chance of becoming Russia’s Deng Xiaoping.” This profound thought was expressed recently in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta by Alexei Chadayev, introduced as “a young Kremlin protege, author of the much-discussed political best-seller ‘Putin: His Ideology.'”

It’s hard to tell if Truth is speaking through the mouth of Mr. Chadayev.

Deng Xiaoping, the famous ideologue of China’s economic reforms who retained his influence even after stepping down from his numerous posts, is known to have opposed even the most cautious political liberalization.

It’s also worth recalling that he was the one who sanctioned the brutal suppression of the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989, leading to over a thousand deaths.

Thus, it’s still an open question whether comparing Putin to Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese reformer who said that “a market economy is not synonymous with capitalism,” may be considered a compliment.

All the same, this parallel is not confined to young Alexei Chadayev’s arguments. It is also drawn by people from an entirely different generation and social position – such as Alexander Shokhin, chairman of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

In a recent interview at Kreml.org, Shokhin gave a rather curious answer to the Russian media’s favorite question: “Will Vladimir Putin step down on schedule? Will he designate a successor?”

It’s entirely obvious, said Shokhin, that Putin “has no intention of retiring” and he’s not inclined to write his memoirs just yet. So before we can answer the “who” question (who will be the successor), we ought to answer the “what” question: “What will Putin do during the next political cycle?”

For Shokhin, only one point is indisputable: Putin will retain his political influence after 2008. In that sense, Russia could indeed end up with a Deng Xiaoping of its own: “An unofficial leader whose words are heeded by the president, the government, and political parties – and who, after existing in that capacity for four years, could return to real power in 2012.”

But the Kremlin’s main priority at present, in Shokhin’s opinion, is “setting in motion a legitimate mechanism to ensure victory for its chosen candidate in the next election.” What’s more, as Shokhin emphasizes, Putin’s designated successor ought to be fully in agreement with Putin himself.

Shokhin won’t venture to say whether this might involve any amendments to the Constitution (“for example, making the president’s powers more nominal and the prime minister’s powers more real”). His impression is that Putin “isn’t inclined to amend the Constitution.”

In fact, there’s no urgent need to do so: “Even without that, he’s the de facto leader of the United Russia party and would be able to become its nominal leader.” If Putin does this after the 2008 election, it would enable him to “head the United Russia faction in parliament, and then become prime minister in a government formed by the parliamentary majority, with the successor-president’s voluntary consent.”

This successor, someone capable of serving as a non-threatening placewarmer for four years – from one election to the next – has long been known: Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s old acquaintance from the St. Petersburg city government, now first deputy prime minister.

Dmitri Bykov offers a vivid portrait of Medvedev in an article for Sobesednik weekly: “According to people who know him well, he’s remarkable for his phenomenal ability to extinguish conflicts. He doesn’t quarrel with anyone, he’s not into redistributing property, he doesn’t want any police measures… He likes to live well. He has a proper liking for sport – skiing, taken up by almost all senior officials, following Vladimir Putin’s example – but he doesn’t torture himself with extreme workouts. He likes being well-dressed, he wouldn’t turn down a glass of fine wine, he doesn’t set himself any superhuman goals, and he’s firmly convinced (being chairman of the board at Gazprom probably helped to convince him) that Russia can become great without any upheavals.”

Many would consider such a person acceptable as head of state; a number of newspaper articles have already noted that if oil prices remain high, it would be hard to find a better successor than Medvedev.

What’s more, says Bykov, the press is generally siding with Medvedev – not with his rival for the presidency, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov – because the press is “controlled by ‘Yeltsin-era people’ who rose to prominence in the Yeltsin administration or were shaped by that period.” All of them are hostile to the Defense Ministry for the simple reason that “if Ivanov takes the throne, he won’t spare anyone.” The possibility of a “new freeze” is usually associated with Sergei Ivanov, along with Viktor Ivanov and Igor Sechin.

The latest media campaign against the Defense Ministry, focusing on some brutal cases of abuse suffered by young conscripts (Bykov explains that “strictly anonymous Defense Ministry insiders, not only Ivanov’s political opponents” are behind this), has greatly reduced Sergei Ivanov’s “electoral capabilities.”

Then again, says Bykov, there’s still plenty of time for Putin to change his mind: “Momentary prominence in 2006 is by no means a guarantee of victory in 2008.”

Besides, says Bykov, although Medvedev is capable of accepting compromises and reaching agreements, if he becomes the next president he probably won’t be able to maintain Russia’s existing “Putin-era lethargy” for very long. And “the awakening could prove to be catastrophic,” Bykov warns, since “Medvedev lacks Putin’s strength of will.”

Bykov draws the following conclusion: “If today’s Kremlin doesn’t want the moderate nationalist and conservative Ivanov take the throne, under Medvedev it might end up with a leader who emerges spontaneously and is swept into office on a wave of the most primitive nationalism.”

In short, the situation is fairly serious.

Therefore, as Alexei Chadayev stresses in his interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “it would be very important for Putin’s opponents to get a clear message that if they make any attempt to destabilize the situation or use force in any way, Putin always has the option of not stepping down. He should retain that option to the very last.”

When asked if Putin has that option now, Chadayev answered confidently: “Of course.” And there’s no point in asking “What about the Constitution?” – because a “real crisis situation is when the Constitution is already under threat.”

But there can be various solutions to a “real crisis situation.”

The other day, as the papers report, the Duma passed the law on countering terrorism in the third and final reading.

This legislation is noteworthy from several standpoints.

The Kommersant newspaper reports that the bill was passed in the first reading back in December 2004 – then made no further progress for over a year.

It was dusted off in mid-February, says Kommersant, after President Putin issued a decree on measures for countering terrorism: this entails establishing a single chain of command for anti-terrorist activity, in the form of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee, chaired by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev – who will be given some unique powers.

Kommersant notes that among other things, the law permits the Armed Forces to be used in fighting terrorism. For example, they could be used “to stop the flights of any aircraft being used to commit an act of terrorism or hijacked by terrorists” – taking measures up to and including the complete destruction of the aircraft.

What’s more, the decision to involve “military units and divisions” in fighting terrorism will be made by the operation leader (that is, the FSB Director or the head of an FSB regional directorate).

The FSB Director will also be empowered to introduce a special legal regimen in any region – a “counter-terrorist operation regimen” that permits “certain restrictions on civil liberties” for residents: ID checks, body-searches and vehicle searches, tapping phones, and so on. Citizens can even be subjected to “temporary relocation,” and private cars can be requisitioned for the purpose of fighting terrorism.

So the new legislation will authorize shooting down planes and sinking ships if they are hijacked by terrorists. Gennadi Gudkov, member of the Duma security committee, commented on this in an interview with the Novye Izvestia newspaper. He stated authoritatively that these provisions are meant for a situation where “a plane changes course and heads for the Kremlin or a chemicals factory,” or “a missile-carrying cruiser is hijacked by terrorists and heading at high speed toward an ammunition depot.” But if hijackers “just want to fly to Turkey,” for example, their plane would not be shot down.

Novye Izvestia comments: “That’s all very well, but the legislation itself doesn’t contain any restrictions to that effect.” It only mentions “reliable information that an aircraft might be used to commit an act of terrorism” and “real danger to human lives or the threat of an environmental disaster.”

As a result, these rather abstract formulations have caused outrage among the Duma opposition (the Commmunists) and human rights organizations alike.

Duma member Viktor Ilyukhin (Communist faction) expressed concern that the provision allowing planes to be shot down might be “interpreted too freely.” It seems to indicate that any aircraft can be shot down if it fails to respond to hails or refuses to land at a specified location. Ilyukin said: “This formulation would make it possible to shoot down any aircraft at all, without even knowing what their demands are.”

Lev Ponomarev, leader of the For Human Rights movement, told Novye Izvestia that he’s concerned about “this law being used as insurance for the bureaucracy – and we all know that accountability is lacking there. So they will shoot down planes and sink ships whether it’s necessary or not.” Ponomarev added that the Moscow theater hostage-taking showed how little regard the special services have for saving the lives of hostages. Now they’ll have a law that permits them to continue behaving in this manner.

“To be honest, even though terrorism has become part of our lives, there’s no obvious need to establish yet another special services giant,” says Novoe Vremya magazine. “The scale of terrorism isn’t all that vast, and in regional terms it’s still restricted to the North Caucasus, being a consequence of the ongoing war in Chechnya and the crisis of Russian statehood in that area.”

According to Novoe Vremya, in other Russian regions the special services are perfectly capable of handling the terrorism problem with the powers they already have: “And if they’re not capable of that, they should simply be disbanded – not given even more powers.”

In the opinion of Novoe Vremya, “Russia is not experiencing a wave of terrorism great enough to warrant giving super-powers to the FSB!”

What’s more, says Novoe Vremya, Putin’s “personnel transfer” method isn’t living up to expectations in other areas: “A whole cohort of KGB generals have been assigned to serve as deputy ministers and department chiefs at the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Emergencies Ministry, and a number of civilian agencies.” As a result, “we no longer have any state agencies free from FSB officials.” But the results are disappointing: “neither proper coordination nor efficiency” have been achieved.

The most vivid example is provided by the presidential envoys, “whose offices are miniature versions of the FSB.” The same can be said for the staff of regional leaders.

“So what would change,” asks Novoe Vremya, “with the addition of another office headed by the director of an agency which has already demonstrated its incompetence?”

There can only be one answer to these rhetorical questions, says Novoe Vremya: “The new construct might prove very convenient for a different purpose – such as continuing the all-out attack on the remnants of civil liberties in Russia.”

Novoe Vremya suggests that this might actually be “the main aim of this special operation.” Besides, establishing a “special services giant” might be “yet another move in attempts to solve the Year 2008 Problem.”

Everything is still focused on the same objective, Novoe Vremya concludes: “How to make the FSB the fulcrum in Russia’s hierarchy of governance.”

Profil magazine expands on this topic: alongside First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, in charge of the social policy national projects, and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, in charge of the defense national projects, we now have Army General Nikolai Patrushev – entrusted with national security. Having received his own national project, Patrushev has a significant chance of “adding his name to the ballot-papers in 2008.”

Most likely, says Profil, “President Putin has decided that two potential successors aren’t enough” to prevent the clashes that are already happening between them. “So there will be three of them.”

A triangle is a fairly stable construct, especially given that there’s still plenty of time until the next election – and until then, as they say, we’ve got everything under control.

This is reminiscent of Alexei Chadayev’s answer to the ingenuous question put to him by Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Be honest – do you like Putin?”

The well-read Chadayev replied as follows: “I think of Putin like readers of mass-market paperbacks think of the heroes in Alexander Bushkov’s ‘Our Man in a Strange World’ books. The plot is like… a Soviet officer finds himself in a fantasy world or parallel universe, where he’s given titles and crowns, becoming the Sun Emperor, enthroned – and all the time he’s thinking: When will I get some orders from central command? But time passes, and no orders from the center arrive. And gradually, painfully, it dawns on him that he himself is the center.”

If that’s the case, one may ask, why step down from that throne at all? After all, Putin is nowhere near as old as Deng Xiaoping was.

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