Operation Successor: Putin is unlikely to pull a new rabbit out of his hat

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“Vladimir Putin will step down as president in 2008, but he will retain control of the situation in Russia, and his successor will be subordinate to him,” says German political analyst Alexander Rahr in an interview with Argumenty i Fakty. “As speaker of the parliament, prime minister, party leader, or in some other role, he would be able to influence the next president. His main objective is to ensure that his successor fits into the controlling mechanism of governance, doesn’t try to change the state of affairs, and submits to Putin’s influence.”

Rahr attributes Putin’s success to the “man in uniform” phenomenon, something Russian society had been craving ever since the mid-1990s.

“Even now, one of the popular potential presidential candidates is Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov,” says Rahr. “Once again, we are seeing voter demand for a person associated with the security and law enforcement agencies – someone who can be tough when necessary, and take full responsibility for that, as a military man and a statist.”

In discussing successor candidates, Rahr stresses that “Putin often uses sophisticated intelligence-style methods: saying one thing, doing another.” Thus, despite what he said about the successor possibly being a political unknown, Putin “isn’t likely to pull a new rabbit out of his hat.”

Rahr goes on to say: “In 1999, everyone expected someone new – a mystery individual who would appear from somewhere and change everything. These days, nothing needs to be changed, so people will vote for a person who will continue Putin’s policy course. Both Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov would do that. These candidates are the right choice. Actually, rumors of an ‘unknown person’ are distraction maneuvers, to give the people the impression that no decision has been made as yet.”

Those names – Medvedev and Ivanov – are being mentioned increasingly often in connection with the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, precisely in the political context of the forthcoming elections.

In an interview with the BelGazeta website, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky says that the “forces” behind these crimes “are striving a change of leadership in the Russian special services, and want to see First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev named as Vladimir Putin’s successor as soon as possible.”

Belkovsky says: “The objective of this crime (Politkovskaya’s murder) was to induce Vladimir Putin to take certain steps: replace the security and law enforcement (siloviki) leaders, dismiss presidential aide Igor Sechin, and finalize Dmitri Medvedev’s appointment as prime minister and presidential successor. This didn’t happen – so an additional victim became necessary (Litvinenko). And I don’t rule out the possibility that there may be further victims, if Putin doesn’t act according to the reasoning being imposed on him by the organizers of these murders.”

In Belkovsky’s view, “Sechin represents a clan that is hostile to Medvedev – a group of forces that doesn’t want to see Medvedev become the next president of Russia, and will do all it can to convince Putin that such an appointment is inexpedient.”

Belkovsky maintains that the circumstances of Litvinenko’s murder indicate that somebody wanted to make it look like the special services were involved: “It’s as if the killer accidentally left his business card at the scene of the crime. Somebody is making an active effort to make the evidence point to the Russian special services.”

In an article posted on the APN website, Belkovsky explains why he doubts that Igor Sechin and the siloviki were involved in the Politkovskaya murder and the Litvinenko poisoning.

Firstly, he notes that Sechin, who is closely acquainted with Putin, cannot fail to be aware that Putin has absolutely made up his mind not to seek a third term. What Putin wants isn’t “Stalin-style unlimited responsibility, but something much less – 25 years of a nice, peaceful life in Europe” after he leaves office.

Secondly, “the theory of ‘political corpses’ being used to force Putin into staying on for a third term would require Sechin to display a level of irrationality worthy of Bollywood,” but Sechin is an extremely cautious person.

Thirdly, according to Belkovsky, “the hypothetical Sechin seems to have left all too many vital clues about his involvement” in the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya murders, which is uncharacteristic of “the practical Sechin,” who is accustomed to “achieving many objectives via the actions and words of others.”

Fourthly, the money that Sechin and Co. have made from “acquiring all kinds of companies like Yuganskneftegaz and Severstal” is hidden away in Western banks, and they would lose those assets if “Russia turns into a besieged fortress.”

Fifthly, Belkovsky simply doesn’t believe it’s possible for anyone to force Putin to commit an international crime by putting pressure on him in such a way.

Belkovsky then switches to satire: to reassure public opinion, what we need to do now is “cast all those siloviki into the deepest pit,” along with “Sechin’s little bald minion, Mikhail Fradkov,” and then “lead out and present to the whole world the Lesser Evil, the Most Liberal of Available Options – the new prime minister and successor, Dmitri Anatolievich Medvedev.”

But the idea of “leading out” Medvedev isn’t working as yet. According to Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, Medvedev’s “appointment as prime minister has been considered and rejected yet again – for the third or fourth time already.”

Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal says: “The extremely influential Voloshin-Chubais tandem (Medvedev is their protege) almost succeeded last week in its lobbying for the dismissal of the Fradkov Cabinet – but this fell through at the last moment due to obstruction from United Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov,” another of Putin’s potential successors.

Meanwhile, Russkii Kurier predicts that Fradkov’s dismissal could happen sometime after January 20; Putin has promised to get back to this issue then.

Russkii Kurier reports that Putin’s principal decision has been hastened by yet another personal request from Fradkov himself (his fifth request in the past year). “Pleading diabetes and other health problems, he asked to resign last December – and again in March, July, October, and just the other day. This time, it looks like President Putin has decided to grant the prime minister’s request.”

According to Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, “now that Medvedev seems to have outgrown the role of His Majesty’s favorite page-boy, but isn’t yet ready for the role of gentleman-in-waiting,” Sergei Ivanov’s chances of becoming the successor have risen sharply. Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal reports that “Sergei Zverev, Gazprom’s senior political consultant, has been assigned to Ivanov already – just in case.”

Sources told the Forum.Msk.Ru website that Ivanov is now the one who orders articles and opinions from Stanislav Belkovsky, the analyst quoted above. “Not directly, of course,” says journalist Natalia Royeva, “but via Belkovsky’s handlers – pro-Ivanov circles in the FSB. There’s also the connection via a duplicate line: Belkovsky-Berezovsky-Gusinsky-Zverev-Ivanov. As a result, in the blink of an eye, all of Ivanov’s enemies have become Belkovsky’s enemies – and vice versa.”

But Medvedev isn’t Ivanov’s only rival.

As Alexander Goltz says in Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, “throughout last weekend, television broadcasts were packed with abuse directed at the government from the United Russia party’s congress.”

A congress report entitled “The United Russia Party’s Position on Reinforcing National Defense Capabilities” contained a rather revolutionary proposal: “By 2008, two-thirds of Armed Forces personnel should be professionals serving under contract. By 2016, that figure should be 100%.”

“If we’re to take this document seriously,” says Goltz, “it would be a direct challenge to Sergei Ivanov, who never tires of insisting that Russia will always need conscription.”

In Goltz’s view, this is United Russia’s subtle way of cocking a snook at the all-powerful Ivanov. “It’s an indication that Ivanov, contrary to his own assertions, is still among those competing for the place of successor.”

Ivanov himself is neither confirming nor denying that he’s in the successor race. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, reprinted in Profil magazine, Ivanov said: “As yet, I’m not thinking about whether or not to run for president – it’s still six months until that campaign begins.”

In Goltz’s view, United Russia’s anti-Ivanov demarche indicates that the party leadership would prefer someone else as the successor.

Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal maintains that United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov wants to be the successor: “What’s more, he thinks his claim is entirely justified. But he only has one justification, essentially: that variegated collection of citizens popularly known as the United Russia party. All arguments to the effect that it’s a facade, not a real party at all, are parried by Gryzlov with enviable sang-froid: ‘Well, you say everything’s a facade. Am I any worse than the others?'”

In the meantime, United Russia has just recorded its worst election result of this autumn’s campaign season. It happened in the election for the Perm territory’s legislature. As Kommersant reports, “United Russia failed to reach the target set by its general council – it got only 35% of the vote, not 42%.”

Alexei Makarkin, chief analyst at the Political Techniques Center, told the Vedomosti newspaper about another of United Russia’s failures. It invited Russian Railroads President Vladimir Yakunin to join the party leadership. Yakunin, another of Putin’s potential successors, declined to attend United Russia’s congress in Yekaterinburg and ignored the United Russia supreme council bureau’s recommendation that he should become a bureau member.

Russian Railroads spokesman Mikhail Goncharov offered the following explanation: “Vladimir Yakunin considers that active party politics is a job for professionals, whereas he is fully occupied with his work as head of Russian Railroads.” Goncharov declined to comment on Yakunin’s future party plans.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper quotes Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia’s general council secretary: “Yakunin is part of a separate project for us.” Volodin declined to reveal the secrets of that project.

Andrei Vorobiev, chairman of United Russia’s central executive committee, told Kommersant: “Indeed, the party has a separate project focused on Vladimir Yakunin – and not just one, but three projects, I think, and they’re all in production.”

Vremya Novostei comments: “However, given that Yakunin is still being mentioned among President Putin’s potential successor candidates, it would seem premature for him to join the Kremlin’s party until Russia has a legal basis for a party-affiliated presidency.”

Vedomosti also mentions Yakunin’s political ambitions. It quotes Alexei Makarkin as saying that Yakunin is not only being considered as a potential successor, but is also “an adherent of the Russian national idea, heads the Center for Russia’s National Glory, and has close links to the senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

An informed source from United Russia’s leadership told Vremya Novostei that Yakunin’s rivals in the Kremlin saw his promotion as premature. The source maintains that Igor Sechin, deputy head of the Kremlin administration, joined forces with Boris Gryzlov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to block Yakunin’s election to the United Russia supreme council bureau.

Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal agrees with this opinion, saying that Gryzlov is obstructing Yakunin’s career path within United Russia.

Yakunin himself, as Kommersant reports, said on December 6 that he supports United Russia’s ideology but doesn’t intend to combine his professional activities with political activities. Yakunin said: “We certainly support the political goals promoted by the party. But the party’s policy council and I understand quite clearly – and I have great respect for its members – that political work within the policy council is incompatible with my work as president of Russian Railroads.”

According to Russkii Kurier, Yakunin hopes to go into the presidential election of 2008 at the head of his own party. This would be a Christian-socialist type of party. At this stage, however, the presidential administration has suspended plans to form such a party by merging People’s Will, headed by Sergei Baburin, and the Socialist United Party of Russia, headed by Vasili Shestakov (Putin’s former judo instructor).

“The hierarchy of governance has come to its first serious test,” says Leonid Radzikhovsky in Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal. “There is no written law covering succession to the throne. And ‘understandings’ are a delicate matter – not everyone understands them in the same way. So the curtain is rustling unpleasantly, the ship-mast is bending and creaking, and the hierarchy is rocking back and forth with a terrible noise.”

Radzikhovsky concludes: “Meanwhile, the populace is sleeping like a baby, of course. But the elites are groaning with the aches and pains of old age.”

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