Predictions for 2008: Vladimir Putin, Federation Council speaker

Outlining a scenario for 2008: Sergei Mironov becomes the leader of a new-look Russian Party of Life faction in the Duma – and Vladimir Putin, some time after transferring power to his successor, becomes the speaker in a refurbished Federation Council.

The Kremlin’s initiatives in creating an alternative or supplementary (to United Russia) pro-presidential party, headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, might well be a component of one of the presidential administration’s numerous preparations for 2008. In this scenario, after the parliamentary election Mironov would become leader of the new-look Russian Party of Life faction in the Duma; and Vladimir Putin, some time after transferring power to his successor in summer 2008, would become the speaker in a refurbished Federation Council.

Questions regarding who will succeed Vladimir Putin, and how (along with what Putin will do after he steps down), might well rank alongside Russia’s traditional set of cursed unanswerables; however, in contrast to the “What is to be done?” and “Who is to blame?” classics, the questions of 2008 have a specific timeframe – and sooner or later (within the next year) they will be answered. This makes it all the more entertaining (especially in the absence of any leaks) to sift current politics for any hidden hints about what the forthcoming handover of presidential power might be like, and Putin’s own future. Without setting ourselves the goal of finding a 100% accurate forecast of developments, we decided to take a look at how the creation of Mironov’s “constructive opposition” party might relate to the next presidential election and the post-Putin era.

Essentially, the plan looks like this.

First stage: Sergei Mironov’s Russian Party of Life (RPL), having absorbed the Motherland (Rodina) party (this annexation has already been announced) and a number of other moderate leftist and/or patriotic parties, performs successfully in the December 2007 Duma election.

The RPL went into the last election, in 2003, in alliance with the Russia’s Renaissance Party, led by then-Duma Speaker Gennadi Seleznev; this alliance got a pathetic 1.88% of the vote. In 2007, however, the RPL’s result should be far more impressive. Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, has spoken out in favor of the RPL – so now the party’s chances (along with its potential administrative and media resources) are sure to rise.

According to some estimates, if developments are favorable for the RPL, it could aspire to more than the 9% of the vote won by Motherland in 2003. (According to the VTsIOM polling agency, 52% of Motherland supporters are already prepared to vote for the RPL-Motherland alliance.) Mironov’s party will have the support of the Kremlin and state-controlled television, of course. Surkov set out some objectives in his speech to RPL activists: capturing part of the communist and nationalist electorate – those who “don’t support the authorities, but are not their antagonists either.” If the RPL succeeds in this task, even partially, its result could be even more impressive: up to 15% of the vote.

Second stage: RPL leader Sergei Mironov steps down as Federation Council speaker and heads the second pro-presidential faction (perhaps the second-largest faction) in the Duma. Clearly, there would be some self-sacrifice involved in Mironov’s decision to give up the post of Russia’s third most senior state official in favor of becoming a secondary figure in the Duma – but if the RPL succeeds in the election, he might have no other option.

At least, this is the scenario implied by Surkov, who warned RPL activists against fighting United Russia. Describing a confrontation between the RPL and United Russia as “a battle between our own,” Surkov stressed that “the more you spar with each other, the worse it might be for everyone.”

But there would certainly be a “battle between our own” parties within the Duma, as well as unhealthy rivalry between the two houses of parliament, if Mironov stays on as speaker of the upper house, United Russia holds the Duma majority, and the RPL has its own faction in the lower house. The Federation Council would become a kind of headquarters for the RPL, with the constitutional right to veto United Russia’s bills forwarded from the Duma.

The conclusion is obvious: Mironov should move to the Duma, so the “battle between our own” would be channeled into normal parliamentary debate. (And just let anyone dare try calling Russia’s democracy underdeveloped then!)

At any rate, after the next Duma election the Federation Council’s future will no longer be linked to the name of Sergei Mironov. As early as the Duma election campaign, one or the other of the pro-presidential parties (United Russia or the RPL), by agreement with the Kremlin, is likely to propose some radical reforms to the rules for selecting Federation Council members.

According to the Constitution, the Federation Council has two representatives from each region of the Russian Federation: one from the executive branch, the other from the legislative branch. The current procedure for selecting Federation Council members (delegated by regional leaders and regional legislatures respectively) has been in place since 2001. It is the third procedure used since 1993. Senators were directly elected in the regions between 1993 and 1995, under the transitional provisions of the Constitution; then, between 1995 and 2001, Senate members were regional leaders and speakers of regional legislatures.

Since direct elections for regional leaders were de facto abolished in 2004, and regional leaders are now endorsed by regional legislatures after being nominated by the president, and regional legislatures themselves are increasingly elected via party lists, it won’t be hard to find justifications for reforming the Federation Council; especially since in autumn 2007, in the lead-up to the Duma election, pro-Kremlin parties (perhaps preceded by the president) are likely to raise the issue of “further democratization” in the hierarchy of governance. In this context, the idea of electing senators would be very useful; besides, there’s a shortage of other positive campaign issues.

These reforms would make the question of who succeeds Mironov as Federation Council speaker a mere technicality (the next speaker could be one of Mironov’s deputies, or some other representative of St. Petersburg).

Thus, the third stage of the plan will begin: Federation Council reforms.

At the same time, the presidential election will transform Putin from the incumbent to an ex-president. As soon as that happens, the fourth and final stage of the plan will begin.

It’s strange to assume that Putin will take up some other job (Gazprom CEO, United Russia leader, prime minister, or any of the other hypotheses) immediately, as soon as he leaves office. There might well be a time-lag between the two events (that is, assuming Putin wants a new job at all – he once joked that he might retire to “grow roses”). The time-lag need not be one or two days, or even one or two months; it would be exactly as long as Putin wishes it to be.

This time might easily be long enough to let a new law on Federation Council membership procedures come into effect. Such a bill could be written and submitted within a matter of days; Oleg Morozov, now the Duma’s first deputy speaker, once submitted his own bill on that topic, but political motives led to a decision to postpone it. There would also be time to launch an election campaign for the Federation Council.

For example, the St. Petersburg legislature or St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko might well nominate Putin as a senator, asking voters to support him as the candidate most worthy of representing his home city in the Federation Council. In fact, every region in Russia would fight for the honor of being represented in the Federation Council by Putin. And Putin (being an equally predictable and unpredictable politician) might agree to run for the Senate from the Kaliningrad region, for instance (his wife’s home region), or from Chechnya, where he has established peace. And the people would certainly vote for him (from 75% in the Kaliningrad region to 99.89% in Chechnya).

Naturally, when the new Federation Council assembles for its first meeting, its new members would choose the most worthy person in their ranks as speaker.

Fighting absurdity

“Putin, Federation Council speaker” – it sounds strange, but only at first. This office has a number of advantages (at least, compared with Putin’s most frequently predicted potential jobs – Gazprom CEO, prime minister, United Russia leader). Everything depends on the individual.

Firstly, the prime minister always becomes a scapegoat in the event of any disaster; and the chief executive of a monopoly always gets caught up in other people’s initiatives (at the political level, he becomes a treasurer for pro-Kremlin parties or national projects). What’s left? Being United Russia’s leader is only good if Vladislav Surkov is your subordinate; if it’s the other way round, the job’s value becomes dubious. Retiring to grow roses? At 56, Putin is unlikely to do that.

Secondly, control over voting in the upper house is a resource in itself: it means being able to veto the Duma’s decisions (including budget decisions), appointing the prosecutor general, and so on – see the Constitution for a list of the Federation Council’s powers. Besides, the state office hierarchy in Russia is hardly set in stone. At present, the Federation Council speaker is third in seniority after the president and the prime minister, with the Duma (lower house) speaker in fourth place. But this could be changed: a Federation Council speaker named Putin could well be the second most senior state official, de jure, with a de facto role as “father of the nation.”

This will be all the more easy to accomplish, given that the Federation Council, by definition, is not a political house of parliament; it’s the house of the regions. Therefore, the Federation Council speaker can quite legally remain above the political fray (impossible for United Russia’s leader) while personifying the unity of the Russian Federation.

It’s also worth noting that a senator has parliamentary immunity from prosecution. In Putin’s case, it would be “immunity squared” – since the law on the presidency grants an ex-president immunity as soon as he leaves office.

“I don’t know when, and I don’t know who, much less how,” said Vladislav Surkov at a news conference with foreign journalists this summer, when a correspondent from “Liberation” (France) asked him to outline Operation Successor. It might seem that Surkov, as the Kremlin’s chief political strategist, would inevitably know the details of “when, who, and how” – yet his comment was probably true, in overall terms.

Off the record, presidential administration officials admit to having a feeling that the final decision regarding the successor’s identity and the handover technique will be made entirely by Putin himself – and not yet, apparently, but closer to 2008. “This won’t be just another behind-the-scenes decision: Putin will make it all alone,” says a source who has worked with Putin for a long time. “On the one hand, that’s part of Putin’s character: he’s got an intelligence agent’s habit of secrecy. On the other hand, he also has political reasons for not revealing the secret prematurely – he doesn’t want to become a lame duck.”

Judging by the comments of some high-ranking officials involved in preparations for 2008, ignorance of “when, who, and how” certainly isn’t causing depression in the presidential administration. “Don’t worry – we’ll carry out President Putin’s instructions on that score in good time, whenever they are made known,” says one of the officials.

Meanwhile, “remaining in enforced ignorance,” as another source puts it, “Surkov, his subordinates, and everyone else involved in 2008 preparations have no other option but to prepare the ground for several scenarios at once.”

Among those scenarios might well be the one described above: Putin becoming the Federation Council, and controlling his successor (whoever he may be) from that position.

Another senior official says: “Perhaps it’s even true that Surkov knows nothing about who will be Putin’s choice in 2008 – but presidential administration officials are bound to know which options – personal and organizational – are being considered, since it’s the presidential administration officials who are working on those.”

And taking the wishes of their “client” into account, of course.

When asked yet again about his plans for the future, Putin replied jokingly that he might join an opposition party and start criticizing everyone. It’s worth noting that many of Putin’s earlier remarks that sounded like jokes at the time have subsequently turned out to be true.