Russian citizens can’t grasp the concept of Putin stepping down

It suits President Putin to maintain the succession suspense for as long as possible. After all, who wants to be a lame duck? And selecting the right person is no easy task. But this makes Putin’s upcoming departure from office seem like a mockery of nature and common sense.

“Who will replace Putin?” Speculations on that topic have become a favorite pastime in the upper reaches of Russia’s bureaucracy – although few officials will admit to it.

Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, says: “The elites are clearly in a state of agitation, lacking a clear answer to the question of who will be in charge after 2008, whose door they should line up at, whom they should reach agreement with now, and what kind of system of alliances they should form in future.” Then again, says Makarkin, real agitation is only a problem for a minority of “the elite corps of Russian bureaucrats” – those who are somehow related to what’s known as the St. Petersburg team, and consequently have access to the decision-making sphere. Makarkin says: “Most of the elites are excluded from that process, unable to influence it in any way, so they’re just sitting and waiting – based on the simple reasoning that there’s no point in getting alarmed prematurely.”

These “large groups of people” have one thing in common: none of them know exactly who the successor will be.

Lacking that privileged information, they’re behaving accordingly: some are in no hurry to anticipate events, since there’s still a long way to go and no one knows who will be the leader. Others, in contrast, are trying to hasten events along, increasing pressure.

Andrei Ryabov, chief editor of “Global Economy and International Relations,” says that the proposal to create a “two-legged party system” is a similar case: “In effect, we might describe it as an attempt by some political groups to reserve a place for themselves in big-time politics after 2008, by means of such a risky move – risky for the unity of the authorities themselves, primarily – as creating a second Kremlin party.”

And here’s another example – far more serious: the national projects announced by President Vladimir Putin in November 2005. Even in the Kremlin, it is being said incrasingly often that ambitious plans for qualitative breakthroughs in four specific areas have long since turned into pork-barrel campaigns in the lead-up to elections.

Actually, while many believe that the absence of a clearly-identified successor has been drawn out for too long, given that there’s a wide variety of candidates of various kinds and calibers, this situation is entirely due to the incumbent himself.

On the one hand, it suits President Putin to maintain the suspense for as long as possible. After all, who wants to be a lame duck? A senior official put it this way: “As soon as Putin names the successor, fewer people will ask for appointments with him – he’ll even get fewer phone calls.” Subjectively, therefore, Putin “can’t have an interest in making the successor obvious.”

Alexei Makarkin says: “In present-day Russia, that would inevitably lead to there being two centers of power.”

On the other hand, selecting the right person is no easy task. According to Putin himself, the successor should have three fundamental qualities: “integrity and honesty, professional skills, and the ability to take responsibility.” Clearly, Putin would be able to entrust such a person not only with Russia, but with his own post-presidential future.

So Putin isn’t in any hurry. He doesn’t want to set himself up, and he doesn’t consider it expedient to thrust his successor into the spotlight prematurely.

But this makes Putin’s upcoming departure from office seem like a mockery of nature and common sense. Some experts are even saying, seriously, that the Constitution’s two-term limit is a mere technicality, and Russia would be doomed without Putin. Consequently, “Russia’s breakthrough to world leadership is preferable to the Constitution’s stability.”

But other analysts say that even if Putin does keep his word and step down, he’ll still be able to influence events after 2008. “Consequently, it still isn’t clear who would be in charge: the incumbent or the ex-president.”

So far, the second option is more likely: Putin himself seems too young to leave the stage permanently.

Hence, there’s a paradox: no one’s venturing to analyze what 2008 will be like. A presidential administration official admitted: “At this stage, all of us – not only those of us in the Kremlin, but the nation as a whole – still aren’t capable of grasping the concept of Putin’s departure from office.”

An evident consequence of this is the entirely abstract nature of various popularity ratings. The public and the elite take the following view of the election situation: “it’s as if Putin will stay, but there will be some kind of successor as well.”

A presidential administration official says: “With perceptions like these, opinion polls become pointless. But once people realize that Putin is about to become an ex-president, a new and different configuration of opinions will emerge – not reflected in current opinion polls. Another curve in the picture of Russian media and politics.”

And until that happens, says Andrei Ryabov, many of Putin’s team “are interpreting Putin’s delay as a sign of uncertainty and indecisiveness.” Hence their continual attempts to “prod” Putin into making “the only correct decision.” Ryabov says: “Any instruments can be used for this purpose: a battle for control over oil companies or lucrative state contracts, or inciting some dangerous nationalist sentiments among the masses.” As a result, says Ryabov, “the actions of various factions at the top, trying to ensure the decision they want, could destabilize the political situation.” That would mean new hotbeds of instability arising from almost nothing – perhaps even more dangerous than the situation during the last handover of power.

Alexei Makarkin: “Without aiming to become a lame duck prematurely, Putin will surely try to retain his freedom for as long as he can.”

Moreover, says Makarkin, Putin has no objective reason to hurry: “If the economic and political situations were in crisis, knowing the successor’s identity would be extremely important – in terms of choosing a policy course, and testing voter support for any particular candidate.” But opinion polls indicate that citizens would be prepared to vote for virtually any candidate who is endorsed by Putin. Makarkin says: “Consequently, the question of whether any particular candidate can win an election becomes much less significant.” The Kremlin is assuming that “people will vote for him anyway: they want a successor, and they’re not too worried about his name or exactly how power is transferred to him.”

Moreover, says Makarkin, the shorter the interval between Putin’s successor-announcement and the election, the more significant Putin’s role in the election campaign will be. Our sources in the Kremlin tend to take the same view.

“In deciding when to announce the name of his successor, it’s best for Putin to base his decision on the constitutional timeframe of his period in office,” says a Kremlin administration source. Therefore, says the source, “until the election processes described in the law on presidential elections get under way, it’s premature to say that any particular individual is 100% sure to be the successor.” In other words, until the successor is registered as a presidential candidate, he should not be regarded as the successor.

And this means that the era of political uncertainty is reaching a peak in the “upper political layers of the atmosphere.”