President Putin’s play

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“Policy continuity” is becoming a sacred phrase for all politicians in power – from President Vladimir Putin to members of government parties. When the Vedomosti newspaper asked United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov whether Sergei Ivanov or Dmitri Medvedev have been invited to join United Russia, he replied that Ivanov is a supporter of the party and “presumably, a supporter of the party wants to join it and will do so, sooner or later.” But Gryzlov immediately swept aside any questions of partiality or preferences, noting that policy course continuity is more important than individuals.

Profil magazine looks at how President Putin is seeking to ensure policy continuity. According to Profil, the appointment of Ivanov as a senior deputy prime minister is Putin’s way of sending the message that he has decided on a technique for transferring power, and the identities of his potential successors aren’t as important as the roles they will have to play: “A good director casts actors to fit the parts.” In this pre-election play, Ivanov represents the moderate conservative path of development for Russia, while Medvedev represents the moderate liberal path. And once the actors have been chosen via such a stringent selection process, “the final decision on who will replace Putin can be safely entrusted to the populace.”

To back up this argument, Profil quotes what Putin said at his recent major press conference in the Kremlin: to the effect that in the presidential election of 2008 “there won’t be any successors – there will be candidates for the post of president of the Russian Federation.” And the task of the authorities is only “to ensure a democratic method of coverage for their election campaigns and their explanations of their campaign policies, so that citizens of the Russian Federation can make an informed choice.”

Both potential candidates have started 2007 by “explaining their policies.” Profil says: “First, Medvedev spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, presenting himself as a convinced liberal Westernizer. Then Ivanov went to the international security conference in Munich, where (after President Putin) he played the role of a convinced hawk, conservative, and statist. And the fact that Ivanov was promoted straight after this speech is further evidence that he passed the screen test for one of the two leading roles.”

Political analyst Vladimir Zharikhin says that the option of resolving the Year 2008 Problem “by introducing the successors into the electoral process” seems like the most acceptable option. In an interview with Profil, Zharikhin says: “A choice situation, even if it’s modelled in this manner, would have a very beneficial impact on the formation of a normal political process in Russia.” After all, Ivanov and Medvedev are “people with different views, but the same ideology.”

Profil maintains that the Kremlin has long since safeguarded itself against the emergence of any “third force” with the hypothetical ability to wedge itself into the battle between the Kremlin’s two favorites and suddenly intercept a victory from one of them. Konstantin Simonov, president of the Russian Political Conjuncture Center, says: “The entire field of politics is already occupied, and the chances of any potential ‘upstart’ are zero.” Moreover, all of the more or less coherent political forces will be drawn into supporting one presidential candidate or the other: the pro-West liberal forces will “submit” to Medvedev, and the statist patriots will follow Ivanov. The “superfluous people” – those who don’t join either camp – are likely to find themselves left by the political wayside.

This “binary approach” will make it possible to format the elite groups themselves, to a substantial degree. A Kremlin-linked political consultant told Profil: “This is a wonderful idea – not allowing our elite to support one candidate en masse. Let them place their bets – let some of them lose!” Only then, says the consultant, “will there be some hope of the losers becoming a normal opposition: not an opposition that threatens to destroy the social order, but an opposition that’s prepared to take the helm at any time.”

It’s a difficult choice, against the backdrop of constantly-changing ratings.

The Vedomosti newspaper reports some poll results from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM): a week after President Putin announced Sergei Ivanov’s promotion, Ivanov’s voter support rating as a potential presidential candidate had risen from 6% to 10%, while the support rating of the other senior deputy prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, remained unchanged.

The Levada Center polling agency has also recorded a rapid rise in Ivanov’s popularity. Its February poll showed Ivanov’s trust rating rising nine points to 24%. Medvedev’s rating rose seven points to 21%. Among respondents who firmly intend to vote and have already decided how they will vote, 32% prefer Medvedev and 27% prefer Ivanov.

Journalists are watching with interest as the recent changes affect the relative influence of Medvedev and Ivanov within the state apparatus and in terms of controlling state funds. The distribution of duties and responsibilities among deputy prime ministers has left Ivanov in charge of the defense sector and transport; Medvedev still has the national projects; Sergei Naryshkin is in charge of foreign trade activity, and Alexander Zhukov is in charge of lawmaking.

The Kommersant newspaper notes that if influence within the state apparatus were directly correlated with chances of securing the presidency, then this distribution of powers would clearly leave Ivanov ahead of his main rival in the Operation Successor race. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov described Ivanov’s role in the government as follows: “He will supervise all of what we call the real sector of the economy, including the military-industrial complex, on which we are relying substantially in diversifying the economy and making it more innovational.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out that since Ivanov has relinquished the role of defense minister, his name will no longer be associated with military problems that generate negative publicity, such as the Private Sychev case. This could improve Ivanov’s image radically. Moreover, he will have every right to claim the credit for any achievements in the defense sector or the rest of Russian industry.

Dmitri Medvedev’s gains are more modest. Kommersant says: “The redistribution of powers hasn’t given any additional points to this senior deputy prime minister. He has been changed from the senior deputy in charge of the national projects to a senior deputy responsible for social policy. Medvedev’s burden now includes all the problem areas – education, healthcare, agriculture.”

Independent political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin agrees. He told RBC Daily that Ivanov has gained a powerful electoral resource in the form of “obedient voters among military personnel and defense sector workers.” But Medvedev has been given “political suicide” areas such as healthcare and education. “Look at the Affordable Housing national project, for instance – no matter how hard Medvedev tries, he can’t turn the construction sector around in the time remaining until the election,” says Oreshkin.

Another political analyst, speaking anonymously, told RBC Daily that the Cabinet reshuffle indicates a primary role for Sergei Naryshkin. Firstly, according to this expert, both Medvedev and Ivanov have been placed in charge of obvious “failure zones” – issues which can never earn them a presidential popularity rating or enable them to claim the successor role. Secondly, the role of balance-keeper seems to have been assigned to Naryshkin: someone who reconciles interests between the identified successor candidates and the Kremlin factions behind them. In the late Yeltsin era this role was played first by Sergei Stepashin, then by Vladimir Putin himself, who eventually became the president. The analyst said: “Within a week, we shall see the first steps taken by Sergei Naryshkin – enabling us to draw further conclusions about his assigned role.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta has assessed the relative financial influence of Medvedev and Ivanov: adding up the budgets of the ministries and agencies supervised by each senior deputy prime minister, along with the budget projects and programs they control. Until now, Ivanov only controlled the military budget – amounting to 500-600 billion rubles a year. Now he manages sums amounting to at least double the military budget (1.275 trillion rubles). The sums Medvedev controls have increased from the 240 billion rubles allocated for the national projects this year to 835.9 billion rubles. But although Medvedev’s financial influence has increased even more than Ivanov’s (by 350%), his total is still 50% less.

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky maintains that although both Ivanov and Medvedev have increased their influence within the state apparatus and in terms of controlling state funds, neither of them will become Putin’s official successor. In an interview with Echo of Moscow Radio, Belkovsky said that Medevedev “has been nominated as a successor candidate by certain people from a certain group – primarily associated with Russia’s most influential business leader, Roman Abramovich, and former Kremlin chief-of-staff Alexander Voloshin.” Belkovsky argues that Medvedev was appointed as senior deputy prime minister in September 2005 with the specific aim of having him replace Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister in March 2006 and become the official successor. “But that didn’t happen,” says Belkovsky, “neither in March nor in September, when it had been promised again. That’s because Putin became convinced that Medvedev couldn’t cope with the most important task – controlling the bureaucratic system. The bureaucracy has not accepted Medvedev as one of its own. It rejects him, so he cannot be an effective moderator for the elites after Putin leaves office.”

Ivanov’s chances of becoming the successor are even smaller, says Belkovsky. He points out that the former defense minister “is somewhat stronger than Medvedev in personal terms, but he’s a loner,” and “he’s got no roots in the elites at all – he’s entirely bound up with Vladimir Putin.”

Belkovsky’s conclusion: “All this means that as long as Putin remains president, Ivanov has some leverage to influence the situation. As soon as Putin steps down, Ivanov won’t have a bureaucracy network supporting him alone.”

Echo of Moscow Radio listeners and RTVI viewers agreed with Belkovsky. In a joint poll, 92% of these respondents said they don’t believe that either Ivanov or Medvedev will be the successor.

Well, our guessing games and forecasts about the future president’s identity will all be over in exactly a year’s time – on March 2, 2008.

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