The Year 2008 Problem: an incognito successor and a cover operation


At a press conference in Shanghai on June 16 (the tenth anniversary of Russia’s memorable presidential election in 1996), President Vladimir Putin presented journalists, the political community, and all Russian voters with yet another puzzle.

Putin acknowledged that the list of potential candidates for his designated successor in 2008 isn’t confined to the two names everyone knows: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The list might also include someone whose name “is not being mentioned.” That person’s identity would be revealed “some time before the election.”

At this point, according to Putin, all he can say is that the successor should possess qualities like “decency and honesty,” along with “professionalism and the ability to take responsibility” (quoted in the Kommersant newspaper).

The press hasn’t viewed Putin’s statements as unusual. “Putin’s key appointment decisions have always been sudden, with the appointee’s identity being entirely unpredictable,” says the Vedomosti newspaper.

As Vedomosti points out, in February 2004, following the sudden dismissal of then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, observers predicted that the job would go to Dmitri Kozak or Sergei Ivanov. The appointment of Fradkov, then Russia’s envoy to the European Union, came as a complete surprise to both the political elite and political analysts.

The appointment of Sergei Sobyanin, former Tyumen region governor, as head of the presidential administration was just as sudden.

Izvestia maintains that at this stage, it’s pointless to even guess who the successor might be; it seems that Putin hasn’t made his final decision yet. “Well, what do you expect? Korolev had 14 Gagarins, after all,” said “an informed source with direct knowledge of how the Kremlin goes about seeking future presidents.”

The Kommersant newspaper published an extensive list of Russian political figures who have, at one time or another, been mentioned as potential successors to Putin.

The first person mentioned as a potential successor, says Kommersant, was Governor Alexander Khloponin of the Krasnoyarsk territory. Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said on October 7, 2002, that Khloponin “fits in perfectly with the required image of a youthful crisis manager.”

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was first mentioned as a potential successor in “Berliner Zeitung” (Germany) on August 23, 2003. And after Ivanov’s appointment as deputy prime minister on November 14, 2005, the Russian media no longer doubted his great destiny.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was first mentioned as a potential presidential candidate by Profil magazine in October 2005, and he is the current favorite.

Sergei Sobyanin has been considered a potential successor since November 2005, when he was appointed as head of the presidential administration.

According to Kommersant, then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was first mentioned as a potential successor by Kommersant-Vlast magazine in May 2002. After his dismissal, however, experts anticipated that the new prime minister would automatically become the successor – “and after Mikhail Fradkov’s appointment as prime minister in March 2004, the status of potential successor was assigned to him.”

After United Russia won the parliamentary election of 2003, Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov said in an interview with Kommersant that United Russia’s leader, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, might be the Kremlin’s candidate in the presidential eleciton of 2008.

On July 30, 2004, Nezavisimaya Gazeta named Healthcare Minister Mikhail Zurabov as a potential successor – “if the monetization of benefits reforms are successful.”

Of course, the much-discussed interviews given by Vladislav Surkov to the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper and “Der Spiegel” magazine were also regarded by analysts as “presenting President Putin’s program.” Moreover, the press mentioned Surkov’s “close contacts with television networks and the Duma” as additional arguments in favor of his being the likely successor.

On February 10, 2004, after Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov was registered as a presidential candidate, the Sobesednik newspaper speculated that this might mark the start of his presidential campaign for 2008.

In November 2005, the Izvestia newspaper added Vladimir Yakunin, newly-appointed president of Russian Railroads, to the list of Putin’s potential successors. According to analysts, this senior role in a state-owned monopoly should be “a step toward the post of prime minister, and then to the presidency.”

On June 23, 2005, the Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper described the YUKOS affair as “the start of a publicity drive for Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov as the successor.” What’s more, some analysts later interpreted Ustinov’s dismissal as “a cunning plan for promoting the former prosecutor general to president.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported on July 1, 2005 that St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko might be promoted to prime minister, suggesting that she might then become a presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, prominent journalist Olga Romanova points out in Newsweek Russia that back in 1996, straight after the June 16 election and Boris Yeltsin’s fifth heart attack, officials started seeking a successor to the newly re-elected president.

“Just about everyone was on Yeltsin’s list: Chernomyrdin, Chubais, Nemtsov, Igor Ivanov, General Bordyuzha.” All except Vladimir Putin: “He was spotted by Boris Berezovsky.” After spotting Putin, according to Romanova, Berezovsky started “playing intrigue games with the public: saying that the Kremlin had found a suitable person, well-known in certain limited circles, an honest and professional man.” At the time, Putin was the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Berezovsky was called a conjuror back then, says Romanova: “He could pull anyone at all out of his sleeve, without needing to seek approval.” His attitude to the public was contemptuous: “You’re all mugs, you’re easily fooled, so come along and vote as you’re told to vote.”

And now, says Romanova, “Vladimir Putin is saying the same.”

Who is this potential successor Putin mentioned? “Where does he work, who are his friends?” asks Romanova. “What are his views on democracy, on Russia’s path in the 21st Century, on reforms, on energy resources? Is he bald or curly-haired? Is he married? What does he want? Putin knows, but we’re not allowed to know yet.”

Izvestia comments that “Putin seems to enjoy creating this sense of suspense” – especially given that the current contenders – Medvedev and Ivanov – can’t be written off either.

Moreover, says Izvestia, the present “public activity by Ivanov and Medvedev is quite useful: by cleverly encouraging the idea that they are rivals, they create a perfect cover operation.”

After all, a successful political launch requires “not only selecting the right candidate, but also avoiding premature burnout.” In other words, the potential president’s popularity ought to be approaching its peak, not declining, by election day.

Thus, says Izvestia, following Putin’s admissions in Shanghai, the list of potential successors has once again expanded to infinity: “And only Putin knows how many names are really on the short-list.”

The experts approached by Vedomosti maintain that Putin’s latest statements concerning his successor are prompted by his wish to retain personal control over the process of electing the next president.

Alexei Makarkin from the Political Techniques Center told Vedomosti: “In the United States, an outgoing president is known as a lame duck – since his decisions are no longer as important, and all public attention is focused on potential candidates. But Putin intends to remain the center of political authority to the last. That’s why he’s maintaining uncertainty about his successor.”

Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center takes the same view: “Uncertainty helps Putin retain the political initiative and weaken the activities of the political elites, who have already started looking to the potential successors (Medvedev and Ivanov) and redistributing economic and political resources.”

In an article for Novaya Gazeta, Andrei Ryabov goes on to say that judging by Dmitri Medvedev’s recent policy speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, he is prepared to give the Kremlin and his supporters a guarantee that Russia’s current policies will be continued.

Medvedev emphasized that the key role in the Russian economy should be played by state-owned or state-linked corporations, arguing that this will secure a worthy place for Russia among the world’s leading nations. Despite some token comments about needing to diversify the Russian economy, says Ryabov, Medvedev’s speech implies that Russia’s future is inseparably linked to developing the fuel and energy sector and a network of transport corridors across Russian territory – as opposed to taking the lead in consumer goods production, for example, since Russia could never hope to catch up to China, “the global factory.”

Andrei Ryabov says: “Such a strategy might indeed be attractive to Russia’s elites, since it would give them at least another decade of their carefree lifestyle, with no threat of losing it due to competition with anyone.” However, says Ryabov, such a stragegy is unlikely to appeal to ordinary citizens: “There aren’t enough petrodollars for everyone as it is, and most citizens don’t feel that the influx of petrodollars into the Russian economy has produced any benefits for their own family budgets.”

Vladimir Petukhov, research director at the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), says in Profil magazine: “What we’re seeing now is a relatively new phenomenon in Russia: discontent among the citizenry is rising, although living standards haven’t deteriorated for some time. Russian citizens are increasingly dissatisfied with this growthless kind of stability.”

A similar conclusion has been drawn by researchers from the Sociology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who carried out a large-scale sociological survey in cooperation with the Russian office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Germany). The results were published in the Vremya Novostei newspaper.

The study sought to determine how ordinary citizens think the situation in various areas has changed since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. The findings were surprising, says Vremya Novostei: respondents noted improvements in only four out of 14 indicators (unemployment, opportunities to earn a living, family support, and pensions). In all other areas, citizens either don’t see any changes, for better or worse, or say the situation has deteriorated.

Dissatisfied respondents outnumber satisfied respondents by two or three times on issues like poverty, social justice, pre-school institutions, higher education, health care, housing, the environment, and security.

The proportion of pessimists, respondents who believe that living standards in Russia are deteriorating, rose from 23% in 2000 to 25% in 2003, and is now at 32%.

As the researchers told Vremya Novostei, the levels of discontent are high even compared to the crisis years of the 1990s, and are due to “socio-psychological causes.”

A decade ago, most citizens were clearly aware that Russia was experiencing a very severe crisis and there was no serious prospect of improvement. Now, however, the situation is quite different. The crisis has long since passed, Russia is rapidly growing richer, the authorities keep reporting achievements all the time – but most ordinary citizens aren’t feeling any benefits from all that. “Yet they had such hopes of receiving at least some crumbs from the table of the natural resources export boom.”

The researchers conclude that “a substantial proportion of our society is tired of the socio-economic model that brings stability, yet doesn’t enable economic growth to be converted into quality-of-life improvements for ordinary citizens.”

In theory, says Kommersant, the socio-economic crisis of the 1990s should have been accompanied by major social upheavals – but that didn’t happen: “Suppressed social activity, combined with old Soviet-era habits, produced inertia and a dependency mindset.”

Kommersant cites opinion poll results from the Levada Center, which asked citizens their views on fighting poverty. The most popular answer (60%) involved expectations that the state would increase welfare payments and benefits, as well as raise state-sector wages. Another 14.5% of respondents said that the private sector should take responsibility for providing social support to the population; 11.2% said that the incomes of the rich should be shared out among the poor; and only 8.2% said that citizens ought to show initiative themselves in order to improve the living standards of their families.

It’s hardly surprising, says Andrei Ryabov in Novaya Gazeta, that as the next election cycle approaches, state officials and politicians are showing an increasing tendency to talk about creating “an economy for everyone,” introducing fair taxation, rational pension reforms, and so on. In practice, however, Russian politics has shown over and over again that all such promises are only aimed at winning extra votes.

Nevertheless, although all surveys show that citizens have less and less confidence in the government, the United Russia party, and regional authorities, this isn’t having any impact on President Putin’s confidence rating.

Despite Putin’s repeated assurances that he won’t seek a third term, most voters would clearly prefer to vote for him again. However, once the successor is finally named, it probably won’t be too difficult to sell him to the public.

There are a number of persuasive and effective techniques for doing so, by bringing dissatisfied citizens to their senses.

One technique was demonstrated the other day in Rostov-on-Don by the irrepressible Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky visited “Russia’s southern capital” to “improve the effectiveness of contacts with voters in the lead-up to the next elections.” He spoke confidently about his own prospects in the presidential election.

As Kommersant reports, in response to a question about President Putin’s potential successor, Zhirinovsky snapped: “President Putin isn’t going to endorse any candidate at all!” In Zhirinovsky’s view, Putin will merely step down and “walk away, satisfied that we have democracy in Russia.” From that point, it will be a matter of luck.

“This isn’t a monarchy!” said Zhirinovsky, and proceded to declare that under the circumstances, his own chances of becoming the next president are much greater than the chances of any other candidate.

Well, we still have time to think it over. Perhaps a designated successor would be better after all?