Why Mikhail Kasianov will never conquer the Kremlin

Exactly a year after Mikhail Kasianov was dismissed from the post of prime minister, he announced his presidential ambitions. The benefits Yeltsin’s clan stands to gain in the event of Kasianov’s triumph are clear. However, will Russia benefit from this? And does Kasianov have any chance of succeeding?

Shortly after YUKOS co-owner Platon Lebedev was arrested in 2003, alarmed members of Boris Yeltsin’s political clan asked their patriarch: “What should we do now?” According to a story circulating within the bureaucracy, Yeltsin pondered the matter for a while, then announced: “Look to Kasianov!” Exactly a year after Mikhail Kasianov was dismissed from the post of prime minister, Yeltsin’s words ceased to be a mystery. The former prime minister announced his presidential ambitions.

The benefits Yeltsin’s clan stands to gain in the event of Kasianov’s triumph are clear. However, will Russia benefit from this? And does Kasianov have any chance of succeeding?

Long after his retirement, Vyacheslav Molotov, former Soviet prime minister and foreign minister, suddenly sprang a surprise in 1985: he put on a festive suit and ordered his family: “Call Shevardnadze!” It is ridiculous to compare the elderly Molotov and the robust Kasianov. However, the two former prime ministers do have something in common. Like Molotov, Kasianov is strongly overestimating his own significance in the new political circumstances.

The Family’s prime minister

Mikhail Kasianov’s statement of his presidential ambitions has many reasons: for instance, personal grievances and injured self-esteem. Unlike Voloshin, for instance, Kasianov could never boast of a personal friendship with President Putin. When Alexander Voloshin decided to resign from the Kremlin in 2003, Putin spent a long time trying to persuade him to stay. It is impossible to imagine a similar incident featuring Kasianov. According to our sources, Kasianov was seriously offended by the manner in which he was dismissed from the post of prime minister in 2004.

The offense grew deeper a few months after the dismissal. Putin made some positive notes on Kasianov’s draft proposal for a new mega-bank. However, the resolution was eventually vague. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who hated his former superior, could procrastinate over the draft.

Kasianov’s endeavor to protect himself from a potential attack from the authorities is another reason. According to sources from Kasianov’s inner circle, Kasianov received a phone call from Presidential Administration Director Dmitri Medvedev in late 2004. On behalf of the president, Medvedev strongly advised Kasianov to leave Russia. Kasianov refused. Entrepreneur Teimuraz Karchava, who is a close associate of Kasianov, was arrested almost simultaneously. It is widely believed that Karchava was Kasianov’s authorized delegate in business circles. Kasianov allegedly viewed those two events as an unambiguous warning, and decided that the best defense is a good offense. Supposedly, the authorities won’t dare harass a declared presidential contender: this would greatly resemble overt punishment of a rival.

Neither should Kasianov’s political ambitions be disregarded. When he learned of his promotion to finance minister in 1999, during a trip abroad, eyewitnesses maintain Kasianov looked stunned and even embarrassed. However, many things have changed over the past six years. According to experts, Kasianov sincerely regards himself as a ready-made presidential contender. (Am I any worse than Putin?)

But the chief reason for Kasianov’s demarche lies elsewhere. Yeltsin’s clan, which enjoyed arbitrary rule in Russia in the second half of the 1990s, has declared its claims to supreme power via Kasianov.

According to Anton Surikov, an aide to former deputy prime minister Yuri Maslyukov, Kasianov’s unprecedented career progress didn’t start from Roman Abramovich’s initiative: “It was the initiative of Primakov and Maslyukov to appoint him to the key post of senior deputy finance minister. Abramovich was not involved!” Of course, a link between Maslyukov and Kasianov is evident. Mikhail Kasianov set up placed a considerable number of former subordinates of the Communist Party’s chief economist into his secretariat. However, members of the Yeltsin’s clan – Tatiana Dyachenko, Yumashev, Abramovich – were Kasianov’s main patrons, who ensured his rise…

However, by the end of Kasianov’s tenure as prime minister, his relations with Yeltsin’s political clan worsened. Voloshin was extremely disappointed by Kasianov’s slowness and inactivity. Kasianov also quarreled with Abramovich. The resignation of Igor Shuvalov from the post of Cabinet chief-of-staff in 2003 was accompanied by a shameful scene: Kasianov and Suvalov were shouting at one another so loudly that the prime minister’s secretaries heard them yelling.

As of now, the friction between Kasianov and Yeltsin’s clan has mainly receded into the past. It is whispered among Moscow’s political beau monde that the reconciliation took place aboard Abramovich’s yacht several months ago.

According to our sources, Alexander Mamut is among unofficial coordinators of Kasianov’s “election campaign.” Being the son of a renowned Soviet law professor, Mamut is among the less prominent members of Yeltsin’s political clan. He hates publicity and very seldom attends high society events. However, Mamut loves contriving and implementing intricate maneuvers, while remaining behind the scenes.

Many experts point out Mamut’s strange attitude towards the authorities. He bought Leonid Brezhnev’s former apartment on Kutuzovsky Avenue, and seduced Nadezhda, the wife of Brezhnev’s grandson Andrei (unfortunately, she died young). To all appearances, Mamut now intends to arrang a more large-scale maneuver: catapulting his protege Kasianov into the Kremlin. As is said, it was Mamut to help with arrangements for Kasianov’s trip to the USA, which has gained notoriety. It should be recalled that this was the first time when Kasianov publicly criticized Putin and hinted at his presidential ambitions to the elite audience.

Mr. Indecision

Kasianov’s associates maintain that he was a good prime minister and would make a good president. “As prime minister, Kasianov had no opportunity to promote his own initiatives and form a team of ministers. The Kremlin imposed ministers on him. However, he blocked the rubbish. Not a single foolish decree was issued with Kasianov as prime minister. After he left, foolish decrees followed as if from the horn of plenty,” says Anton Surikov, a political consultant and a former Cabinet staff functionary.

Indeed, Kasianov has many gifts. He’s a top-level bureaucrat. In some aspects he even outruns a similar political heavyweight as Chernomyrdin. Chernomyrdin has never read significant documents submitted for his signature. Very often he was satisfied with an oral report of Petelin, the chief of his staff. Prime Minister Kasianov was reading absolutely everything. His resolutions on documents were long, precise and absolutely definite.

Systemic approach and scrutiny are distinguishing traits of Kasianov’s style. While he studies an issue thoroughly, Kasianov wouldn’t take any decisions. Episodes were frequent when he was prime minister that Kasianov retired with a group of experts for many hours: studied a new subject for him. Following a number of similar sessions he was able to argue on this topic on quite a professional level.

In a word, Kasianov would have been a perfect president somewhere in Switzerland, where all strategic development issues have been settled. The problem is that he claims to presidency in quite a different country – Russia.

The story typical of Garun ar-Rashid, who loved incognito inspections round Baghdad, happened shortly after Kasianov’s appointment as prime minister. The government then pompously passed another decree on aiding the small business via the parliament. Under this epochal document, the registration procedure was simplified ultimately for private companies. An idea was born at a Cabinet meeting soon afterwards: why shouldn’t we see how the law is being applied in practice? No sooner said than done: a young official in the guise of a businessman was sent to register a company.

Heads of the governmental staff listened to a new portion of terror each morning since that day. It turned out immediately that nobody even intended to follow the new law. The queues into the registering instance became longer. However, the fake businessman was constantly offered to make a bribe to get into the beginning of the queue. The White House officials craved for unprejudiced nature of the experiment and ordered their subordinate to make everything legally. Finally, the functionary nearly reached the cherished window. However, the gallant guys of the tax bodies suddenly rushed onto the queue. Allegedly, you haven’t filled a new form and therefore, your waiting in the queue is in vain. This was the infamous end of the experiment.

This story is indicative for Kasianov’s Cabinet. Sky-high oil prices enabled the Cabinet to repeatedly report successes. In reality, the Cabinet machinery was idling. Undoubtedly, Russian reformers have always encountered a similar problem. It was comparatively easy to pass progressive laws, but making them work, really change something in the life of our country was always incredibly hard. However, Kasianov’s colleagues in power, like Voloshin or Chubais, succeeded in similar efforts at times. By his own nature, Kasianov was absolutely unable to take breakthrough actions.

A supreme Russian leader must have the ability to take tough, sometimes disputable and independent decisions. When Kasianov faced resistance in some decisions, he invariably postponed the debate. However, there were some exceptions. When the Cabinet solved the issue of the agency for bankruptcy proceedings or in favor of selecting Vnesheconombank as a state management company for pension savings, Kasianov made independent decisions. Concerns of friendly financial structures made the stake in all of those cases. Even for a prime minister, such pliability and inability to make rapid decisions in critical situations are not the best qualities, and they are unacceptable for a president.

A Russian leader must have strategic vision. He must be aware of where he wants to lead the country and what the country ought to achieve. Unfortunately, Mikhail Kasianov hasn’t got a chance of doing this. It is not about the fact that Kasianov has no experience of public politics, being head of security structures or being involved in the global diplomatic game on a serious level. Experience could be gained in case one wished to and is able to do that. The problem is that even in his official role as the person in charge of the Russian economy, Kasianov was never an ideologue. Kasianov intends to develop such an image in the immediate future. It is planned that from time to time Kasianov will propose attention-getting and thoroughly developed initiatives regarding some domestic problems. For instance, his proposal about Russia’s accession to the WTO is scheduled for summer. Yet it is impossible to develop the capacity to be an ideologue: it’s innate – you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

The choice in the desert

The Kremlin prepared a decree on appointing Alexei Kudrin as new prime minister at the start of 2004. According to competent former officials, Putin was about to sign this decree. However, figures from the clan of St. Petersburg siloviki started whispering in Putin’s ear: allegedly, Alexei Kudrin is showing too much independence of late! As a result, appointed as prime minister was Mikhail Fradkov, who cannot be suspected of independent political ambitions.

This story is a brilliant illustration to the saddest peculiarities of the incumbent authorities. The Kremlin dislikes and fears independent politicians. As soon as somebody raises one’s head above the parapet, an attempt is made to twist this head off. Therefore, barely strong presidential contenders exist with three years to go until election of the new master of the Kremlin. We are observing the bare and barren political desert in all directions. By the way, this is our striking difference from other countries, where they have plenty of potential successors to the incumbent leaders. For instance, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown could replace British Prime Minister Tony Blair any moment. Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the presidential party, aspires to replace French President Jacques Chirac. A pack of strong candidates for US presidency exists as well – from Democrat Hillary Clinton to Bill Frist, leader of the Republican majority.

In Russia enumeration of potential presidential contenders more resembles a session of laughter for health. “Androids” like speakers Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Mironov? Very ridiculous. Eternal losers and figureheads like Gennadi Zyuganov? Even more ridiculous. Relatively fresh nationalist figures like Dmitri Rogozin or democrats like Garry Kasparov? The laughter grows into hysteria. Compared to such figures, Kasianov might seem to be a real political giant – which gives him a chance. As they say, a small fish like Kasianov is better than an empty dish!

Some officials close to Kasianov believe that he has a covert agreement with the Kremlin. Supposedly, President Kasianov would guarantee as much respect and esteem for Putin as Yeltsin has now. So far, however, such a theory seems very unlikely. At any rate, most of those in the Kremlin regard Kasianov as a truly dangerous foe.

This means that the battle for the Russian presidency is likely to be very harsh in 2008. It is not clear whether Kasianov is prepared for this battle. Even after his dismissal from the post of prime minister, Kasianov still perceives himself as a big boss. Fortunately, circumstances enable him to do so. In Kasianov’s enormous, half-empty headquarters at the top of the Cherry Tower skyscraper in Novye Cheremushki, there is even room for a swimming pool. But in order to become a presidential contender of any substance, declaring one’s ambitions is not sufficient. Anyone seeking to do so needs to forget about his own greatness and stop aiming for the unachievable. Fighting the current Kremlin team requires boldness, resolve, even recklessness. Can Kasianov overcome his own limitations and become a completely different politician? That is very doubtful.

And if a miracle does occur, Russia can hardly expect to achieve great things under the leadership of President Kasianov. For some world leaders, power and independence actually don’t extend beyond their public image. Take Tony Blair, for example. Gordon Brown regularly criticizes Blair, insulting him in every possible way. And Blair takes it. The behavior of Blair’s former press secretary, Alistair Campbell, is even worse: he often openly humiliates Blair in his statements to the media.

Of course, Kasianov has never permitted his subordinates to insult him. Yet for a great deal of his period as prime minister, he silently accepted the fact that the government was actually controlled by someone else entirely. Given Kasianov’s habit of avoiding conflicts, the situation is unlikely to be any different if he becomes president.

Of course, the identities of the individuals who run the country are a secondary issue. The results are what really counts. And if Kasianov becomes president, that would mean four more wasted years. At best – if oil prices remain sky-high – the authorities would continue restricting themselves to half-measures. But can Russia afford this luxury? The mountain of dangerous problems – problems with the potential to tear Russia apart – is growing with every passing year. Pressure from the United States and the European Union is growing in Europe. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Asia. Chinese activity in Siberia is increasing. And all this is happening against the backdrop of Russia’s oil-dependent economy and terrible demographic crisis. In short, we are running out of time – and under Kasianov’s “leadership,” Russia would clearly fail to meet these challenges.

Previous articlePUTIN’S THAW