President Putin’s policy of complete mystification

Nothing is what it appears to be, and everything is actually different – that’s the motto of present-day politics, the slogan with which Putin will leave the Kremlin. Supposedly. Maybe he’ll leave, maybe he won’t.

The Year 2008 Problem hasn’t been solved yet, but there’s already a solution concept. Nothing is what it appears to be, and everything is actually different – that’s the motto of present-day politics, the slogan with which Vladimir Putin will leave the Kremlin. Supposedly. Maybe he’ll leave, maybe he won’t.

A fresh look at Russian politics produces the firm impression that our whole lives are hidden beneath a veil of mystery and governed by the magical touch of a demiurge. It isn’t clear where anything comes from: how regional leaders are appointed, what the government is doing, or who gives Gazprom its instructions. Everything is covered by a thick fog, which is dispelled only when Vladimir Putin comes out on stage.

The scripts for 2008 don’t look convincing either. It appears that Putin will step down; he says he will, and there are no grounds to disbelieve him. The two-term limit is in place, and there haven’t been any signals that it will be changed. Two potential successors have been identified – promoted to deputy prime ministers last autumn. That’s the situation on the one hand. On the other hand, President Putin doesn’t seem like a lame duck. At all. How can he leave? And those potential successors are in an ambiguous position: it’s as if they are official candidates (how else can last autumn’s promotions be interpreted?), yet they’re not, since no one has described them as such. Above all, Putin himself has not done so.

Opinion polls indicate that voters will accept any candidate named by Putin, so he has nothing to fear there. He might be concerned that if he names a successor too early, the person named might sink beneath bureaucratic power-struggles. But that isn’t true either. Putin and his team are very authoritative; for example, he instantly put an end to the campaign against Sergei Ivanov. Neither is it a case of Putin himself not having made up his mind yet, since he’s clearly acting according to a plan.

What we are seeing here is a policy of complete mystification, intended to ensure that Putin retains political control after 2008.

This policy started when Putin was reelected for a second term. More precisely, it started when the new Cabinet was formed – using European reasoning and with the expectation that its ministers would become political figures. But the results failed to correspond with the goals, of course. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov isn’t in control of his government; he is less significant and influential than many of his ministers. In fact, he’s left out of the decision-making process. These days the prime minister is part of a cover, camouflaging what really happens. The entire system of state administration is a cover, while policy is shaped somewhere else. Off to the side.

The United Russia party’s leader does not control its party members and Duma faction members. Rosneft oil company executives aren’t hired by the chief executive; they are hired by Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration (and chairman of the board at Rosneft). And Sechin’s boss, Sergei Sobyanin, can’t manage to get on top of things either; in effect, he’s another nominal leader. Part of the cover operation.

Take, for example, the recent incident involving Khazret Sovmen, the head of Adygea. He suddenly resigned, then pretended that nothing had happened. Dmitri Kozak, presidential envoy for the Southern federal district, summoned Sovmen to Moscow. In the presence of Kozak, Sobyanin, and Vladislav Surkov, Sovmen wrote a letter of resignation addressed to President Putin. But Sobyanin had neglected to obtain permission from Putin for this move, and someone else (sources say it was Surkov) convinced Putin that Sovmen’s resignation would be untimely and might have a negative impact on the situation in the Caucasus. In the end, after meeting with Putin, Sovmen stayed on. Kozak, who had acted via Sobyanin, sustained some damage to his reputation; Sobyanin himself ended up looking foolish. Later, Sobyanin drafted a plan for another national project – budgetary reforms similar to those already done in the Tyumen region. His plan was rejected. What’s more, Putin sometimes deliberately confuses his chief-of-staff – and not only him. It was decided recently that the Siberian oil pipeline will bypass Lake Baikal. How was this decision made? When? Who was warned about it, and who wasn’t?

This is part of an overall tactic of creating an atmosphere of secrecy – within and without – surrounding the true levers of political power and policy planning. No one is fully informed about what is happening, and no one trusts anyone entirely. The suddenness of President Putin’s decisions has an impact that goes beyond public relations; it’s a key instrument of mystification, shaping the mythology of hidden mechanisms of governance. The first steps in this direction, taken in autumn 2003, led first to the resignation of Alexander Voloshin (he hadn’t been warned about Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest), then to the dismissal of Mikhail Kasyanov and the appointment of Fradkov.

Vladimir Putin compensates for this artificially-created crisis of confidence in his team by his chief personnel management principle: never entrust anything important to outsideers. When the levers of bureaucratic rivalry aren’t functioning, and policy is shaped behind closed doors, only insiders can be trusted. Neither Fradkov nor Sobyanin are part of the inner circle; the path to the top is barred to them, and they’re just role-playing. And Putin has, of course, selected his successor from his personal acquaintances. From another personnel reserve. After all, we’re talking about the future head of state here.

But for the same reasons, and using the same logic, that head of state apparently shouldn’t be a real head of state – more like a temporary general assistant. Rumor has it that the successor plan won’t work, because having two centers of authority is impossible in Russia. And there shouldn’t be two centers of authority. The momentum of political magic should carry on, with the visible leadership as a mirage and real power behind the scenes.