UGLY DUCKLING (SUCCESSOR)

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Vladimir Putin announced the latest appointments

Experts view the latest staff shuffles as the beginning of Operation Successor starring Dmitry Medvedev. In fact, however, the so called Problem 2008, remains unsolved and the latest appointments will only worsen rivalry between two major factions in the Kremlin.


Vladimir Putin announced the latest appointments at a traditional conference with the Cabinet. Director of the Presidential Administration became the senior deputy premier in charge of national projects, Sergei Ivanov a deputy premier retaining the post of the defense minister. Presidential Administration is to be run by Tyumen Governor Sergei Sobyanin.

There are two traditional views on all and any deeds on the Kremlin’s part.

View One: the conspiracy theory. According to it, whatever happens is necessarily an element of some broader plan.

View Two: the theory of spontaneous decisions made on the spur of the moment, on a whim or under pressure of circumstances.

Unlike Boris Yeltsin, Putin does not appear to favor spontaneous decisions. It is hardly surprising therefore; that most observers explain the latest power shuffles by the conspiracy theory.

In fact, three explanations are offered. Number one: the president put into motion his long charted plans of making Medvedev his successor. His mind is made up, and the plan only needs to be carried out. The solution is in plain sight: Fradkov being worthless as the prime minister, the senior deputy premier will perform brilliantly and execute the national projects. As for Fradkov, he will be held responsible for the Cabinet’s inevitable failures in all other spheres. Medvedev will eventually become the prime minister when Fradkov is told to resign. As for Ivanov, he is just co-starring in this whole operation.

Explanation two: Putin is realizing the concept of two successors. Medvedev and Ivanov are rivals vying for succession. Whoever performs better before 2008, will succeed to Putin. It is possible to assume in development of this hypothesis that Putin nominated these two to permit the population an honest “choice”. One of the claimants will become the president, the other the prime minister.

Explanation three: by Russian political traditions, Medvedev was demoted. As far as this hypothesis goes, Ivanov is promoted into the spotlight… or somebody else. Sobyanin, the man Putin withdrew from gubernatorial obscurity, may be this “somebody”.

There is only one flaw in all these hypothesis. The time of the beginning of the operation or whatever it is. Two and a half years is way too much. The chances that any prime minister – with or without presidential ambitions – will go down in flames are too high. It is precisely because of that, that validity of the conspiracy theory should be questioned.

Advocates of the second theory are less numerous. They are convinced that Putin did not invent anything. On the contrary, he is in utter confusion and at a loss: nothing has been accomplished, the administrative reforms are a dismal failure, no other reform has been put into motion, inflation is going up, infrastructure is falling apart, and incompetence, corruption, and treachery are all around.

Plus Fradkov who got so ill en route from China that his planned visit to Portugal had to be cancelled (according to unofficial reports, the premier did not feel well returning from China and had to make a stopover in Khabarovsk, the special center of diabetes mellitus there).

Something has to be done; the hypothetical loophole has to be plugged somehow. Elevate Gref or Kudrin? The people – and friends from secret services – will never accept them. Elevate someone from secret services? All loyal men have already been elevated and besides, they do not know the first thing about economics. Who is left? Not Chubais with oligarchs, surely. Fortunately, there is Medvedev to be sent to the government. He is not exactly an incompetent in economics or politics (courtesy of four years in the presidential administration under Alexander Voloshin).

According to this theory, all other staff shuffles in the upper echelons were but an aftermath of this particular appointment. Ivanov was elevated to deputy premiership to prevent Medvedev’s promotion from looking like the final choice of the successor which has not been chosen yet.

There are other nuances that corroborate the hypothesis of spontaneity. Sources say that the personnel shuffle was absolutely unexpected even by the men it directly involved. Say, Medvedev was on a vacation in the Moscow region on November 12, unaware that anything was in the wind, and Sobyanin was offered the post of director of the presidential administration at a meeting with the president in Sochi on November 13. (Men who know what they are talking about claim that top managers of federal TV channels were greatly surprised when they received calls from the Kremlin and were told to cover the outwardly banal audience in news programs.)

There is, however, a third explanation. The one based on the understanding that extreme measures are resorted to but infrequently. They are always a mixture of strategic plans and happenstance. Advocates of this theory believe that staff shuffles in the government were forced on the president long before the moment he had scheduled them for.

Medvedev has actually been viewed as the likeliest candidate for succession. Young (he is only 40, quite tender an age for a politician) as he is, he is not associated with anything bad in the mass conscience. The way Putin was not associated once merely because he was absolutely unknown to the general public. Positive associations will be provided by realization of the national projects. In fact, the plans stood for Medvedev’s transition to the government at a later date, in about a year when the first results of realization of the projects would have been apparent. Fradkov’s state of health disrupted Putin’s plans.

That is why some risks are now possible in Operation Successor. An early start may lead to a split in the team.

The presidential administration has always been a shadow government, with the Cabinet itself reduced to existence pretty much for appearances’ sake. The Cabinet tried to amend this state of affairs but everything in the long run was decided in the Kremlin. It became absolutely clear following Fradkov’s promotion to premiership.

Two turns of events are possible now. Either Medvedev takes over the government and the presidential administration, or the relations between the two (the Cabinet vs the presidential administration, that is) are based on the principles of actual rivalry. Nationalization of YUKOS essentially led to establishment of a two-party system in the country.

Gazprom CEO Medvedev is the leader of one, Rosneft CEO (and deputy director of the presidential administration) Igor Sechin is the leader of the other. These structures are divided territorially now: Medvedev’s “liberal gas” in the White House and Sechin’s “patriotic oil” in the Kremlin. Sobyanin, a man with numerous contacts in the oil sphere, is bound to try and join the latter now.

The Kremlin admits that Sechin lost this round of the bureaucratic war and is therefore peeved. Elevation of one faction must cause a stronger reaction on the part of the other. Two and a half years are sufficient time to orchestrate revenge. It stands to reason to expect Sechin to promote Ivanov, as one of his own proteges.

And here we come to the most important aspect of the Problem 2008. The new president must be a guarantor of security and wealth of all Putin’s team. It is the construction itself that matters, identity of the president does not count.

Very many including Putin himself confess that they rely on the feelings of comradeship and male friendship. But Gorbachev and Lukianov had been friends once, and we all know what this friendship ended in. More tha friendship is needed. It takes the sense of belonging to one and the same team where everyone is more or less equal, the proverbial team spirit. Decisions in teams like that are usually collegial so as not to hurt anyone. It means that in the near future already Putin will be compelled to throw a bone to security structures so as to restore the parity wrecked by the liberals’ success. We have to wait and see who will be appointed to the orphaned Tyumen region, and who will become the fourth deputy premier.

On the other hand, Putin’s own choice is the best guarantee chekists (secret services) could hope for. He has elevated the least involved member of the team, a man without a faction of his own. Even if Medvedev the president once decided to rise above the rest of the team, it will be impossible for him to replace state security with the army in advance, the way it was done in 1953, when Beriya was arrested. In Russia as it is, secret services and the army are controlled from one and the same center. This fact alone may ensure the future president’s loyalty to the old presidential team.

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