Russian politics in 2007: preparing for the post-Putin era

In order for Putin’s planned Operation Successor to go smoothly, Putin needs to convince his team that nothing will change when he steps down, and their interests and spheres of influence will remain untouched. Otherwise, some of his team might attempt to disrupt the operation.

A year ago, it was assumed that the pre-election year of 2007 would be a stable, predictable year; after all, the Kremlin had started preparations well in advance for transferring power to President Vladimir Putin’s successor. Indeed, the popularity of the most likely successor – Senior Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev – rose rapidly in 2006; television broadcasts reported the achievements of the national projects, and state spending on social policy increased substantially. Yet this did not make the situation more predictable. The last few months of 2006 only increased uncertainty, even in areas which had seemed straightforward.

In January 2006, it seemed as if the Kremlin clearly intended to establish a de facto one-party system, and United Russia seemed to be turning into a real ruling party. The coup de grace for political forces outside the system came in the form of amendments to electoral legislation in 2006, supposedly aimed at “fighting extremism,” but actually making it possible to disqualify any party or any candidate at all. Contrary to expectations, however, there is some real suspense associated with the elections coming up in March: 14 regional legislatures and the mayors of a number of cities. The suspense concerns one of the chief political surprises of 2006: the emergence of the Just Russia party, headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. The creation of this party is believed to have bypassed Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration; Mironov approached Putin directly for his blessing. Thanks to Mironov’s status within the ruling elite, and accumulated demand for an alternative to the United Russia party, Just Russia rapidly expanded beyond the framework of a routine project aimed at diverting votes in a particular electoral niche.

Just Russia turned out to be in very high demand in the regions – among the regional elites. Regional politics had always been shaped by clan wars, but by the start of 2006 it had become clear that a politician or business owner seeking power within the system could only join one party: United Russia. So the clan conflicts were driven into United Russia’s regional branches. Last autumn, however, the regional leaders found themselves offered a choice of two parties – so the clan conflicts moved to the inter-party level. As a result, Just Russia is now aspiring to the status of a second official party – an unprecedented role in managed democracies. No other country with such a system has ever had two truly competing official parties. At this stage, only one thing is clear: United Russia’s claims to a unique status have been weakened substantially. It remains uncertain what will happen to United Russia, or Russia’s one-party project, in 2007.

Toward the end of 2006, the situation on the right suddenly changed as well, with signs of a turnaround in the Kremlin’s relationship with the Union of Right Forces (SPS). In late autumn, the SPS suddenly took second place in the Perm territory’s election. The SPS showed itself to be well-organized and prepared to target new voter groups with new slogans; in Perm, the SPS abandoned its liberal economic doctrine and successfully positioned itself as a local issues party.

No particular surprises are expected on the left this year. There isn’t enough time to launch any new projects. The Communist Party (CPRF) is unlikely to produce anything unexpected, and will probably lose some votes to Just Russia in this year’s regional and Duma elections.

Voter support for the LDPR and Yabloko still seems to be slipping away, although the LDPR still has some chance of making it into the Duma.

The regional elections in March should clarify the positions of United Russia, Just Russia, and the SPS. United Russia’s objective is to prove its “chief party” status by winning convincing majorities in all regional parliaments. Just Russia’s objective is to take second place in a sufficient number of regions and form solid factions in regional parliaments. The question is what kind of tactics Just Russia will be permitted to use: it might be restricted to attacking minor parties, but it would be quite a different matter if it is allowed to direct radical, effective criticism at United Russia.

Judging by developments in Tyva, where the regional legislature has been in crisis for several months, and developments in Samara, it’s entirely possible that the very presence of Just Russia could split the elites in a number of regions, or even cause a regional “coup.” If this leads to several other “protest regions” having parliaments with a Just Russia majority, or pro-Just Russia governors, that would mean some serious problems for United Russia at the federal level. United Russia’s chance of playing a leading role in Operation Successor and nominating the next president as its own candidate would be greatly reduced. It might not even be certain of winning a simple majority in the next Duma.

The SPS can’t hope to match Just Russia’s success. This party would consider it a great achievement to win representation in some key regional parliaments – especially St. Petersburg and the Moscow region. If this attempt fails, we can write off the SPS and its supposed pact with the Kremlin. But if the SPS manages to repeat its Perm success, it will have a chance of making it into the Duma. It would only have a marginal role, of course, but the symbolic significance of such a development should not be underestimated: it would tell us a great deal about what kind of ideological legacy will be handed down to Putin’s successor.

The most important development of 2006 was the rise in various forms of street politics. The year opened with car owners protesting against new traffic rules and the conviction of Oleg Shcherbinsky’s driver in Altai; then the evicted residents from two of Moscow’s districts won a de facto victory over the Moscow municipal authorities. But the most dramatic incident was in the town of Kondopoga, Karelia – dispelling any doubts about the scale and depth of xenophobic attitudes in our society. The Movement Against Illegal Immigration made its presence felt as a significant player in street politics.

The Kremlin was quick to pick up on all the issues that led to last year’s street protests. Shcherbinsky’s driver was supported by the United Russia party; the federal authorities interceded on behalf of defrauded home-buyers; the Public Chamber stood up for the protesting Moscow residents. The Kremlin also experimented with xenophobia in 2006. The topic of Russian identity and “nationality” became more noticeable in the output of official ideologues – including Vladislav Surkov, who spoke of “nationalizing the future.” Escalating tension in relations with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili led to a purge aimed against Georgians in Russia. President Putin even permitted himself to talk of protecting the interests of “native Russian” traders at produce markets.

The xenophobia topic has now become so prominent that the authorities will find it hard to maintain their ambivalent attitude toward it in 2007. The Kremlin will have to make a choice: it can use this issue as an official ideology to mobilize the masses, or it can acknowledge the danger of playing with matches and take steps to correct excesses. This will be one of the greatest tests for presumed successor Dmitri Medvedev: he will probably have to state his postion on this issue publicly, thus largely formulating the ideology of his future presidency.

Yet the authorities obviously consider this issue too important to let anyone else handle it: if xenophobia is to become part of Russian politics, then it will be official xenophobia. We should not expect any further experiments like the Motherland (Rodina) party when it was led by Dmitri Rogozin, since such experiments can get out of control all too easily. Any spontaneous activities in this area will be brought to a halt as part of “fighting extremism” – so there isn’t much of a future for the Congress of Russian Communities, which elected Rogozin as its leader in late 2006.

In order for Putin’s planned Operation Successor to go smoothly, Putin needs to convince his team that nothing will change when he steps down, and their interests and spheres of influence will remain untouched. Otherwise, some of his team might attempt to disrupt the operation, while others might switch their focus to the successor too early or too zealously, turning Putin himself into a lame duck.

An obvious consequence of this is that the composition of the leadership team will remain stable in 2007. It is becoming increasingly certain that Dmitri Medvedev will be the successor. Medvedev will spend this year continuing to master the skill of public speaking, developing a commanding tone and a steady gaze, and reporting on the success of the national projects. The conclusive confirmation of Medvedev’s candidacy will be revealed to citizens by adding some human interest stories to his television coverage: the public will get to see his wife and hear some engaging tales about his childhood, student years, family life, and hobbies. The sole source of suspense concerns the procedure of nominating the successor as an official candidate – for example, whether he will be a party-affiliated candidate.

Neither should we expect any Cabinet changes this year. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov might surrender his place to the next president, of course; a few technical ministers might be replaced. But if the successor is appointed as prime minister, he won’t be allowed to bring any of his own people into the Cabinet – for fear of disrupting the existing balance of clan interests. On the contrary, the Cabinet’s core is likely to remain as it is: ministers with direct access to the President (such as Herman Gref, Alexei Kudrin, Leonid Reiman) will retain their portfolios, symbolizing policy continuity.

Similarly, stability in the world of state corporations will symbolize Putin’s efforts to persuade the elite that “nothing is changing.” We should not expect to see spheres of influence being redistributed; on the contrary, the corporations firmly controlled by Kremlin clans will be given carte blanche to expand in their respective sectors. Consequently, those whose business interests are based on contacts with the current managers of state corporations have nothing to fear.

And we shouldn’t expect any reshuffles in the presidential administration’s leadership, of course.

But most of this year’s uncertainties are still connected with Vladimir Putin himself. The entire system of checks and balances in Russian politics depends on Putin, so his task is to work out how he can continue to perform this function even after leaving office. The history of other countries suggests several options, all of which have been widely discussed in Russia over the past few years. Putin could attempt to become a “father of the nation” figure, as the regime’s founder; he could take the post of prime minister, with the president’s powers being reduced substantially; he could become the leader of the ruling party. But having Putin as “father of the nation” would require an ideology; having Putin as prime minister would require amending the Constitution; having Putin as party leader would require a real ruling party. All these options would call for significant changes in Russia’s political system, so the question for 2007 is which method Putin will choose to entrench his own influence after March 2008. The nature of the regime under Putin’s successors depends on this choice.

But time to implement any of the scenarios available to Putin is running out. And that means we may expect some surprises from those factions among Putin’s team who don’t stand to benefit from Operation Successor: most of all, the siloviki (security and law enforcement people). It would be very short-sighted on their part to rely entirely on Putin’s promises that nothing will change after he steps down. A mild form of response would be to prepare themselves for the inevitable: reinforcing their positions ahead of the battle for survival after March 2008. One important question for 2007 is the extent to which the rivalry between United Russia and Just Russia reflects the determination of Kremlin factions to establish their own factions in the Duma. By dismissing Vladimir Ustinov from the post of prosecutor general last year, Putin showed that he would not allow any Kremlin faction to privatize the Prosecutor General’s Office, an important source of leverage. Judging by the actions of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika in late 2006, the Prosecutor General’s Office will remain a politically neutral tool in Putin’s hands throughout 2007. That doesn’t mean it won’t be active, of course; but it will serve Putin’s needs, not the wishes of any Kremlin clan.

This means that the siloviki faction is losing, and lacks instruments to fight for its interests. Meanwhile, Putin remains silent. For example, it still remains unclear how Igor Sechin’s faction can manage to maintain its positions in the Rosneft oil company after March 2008. A tense, nervous situation is developing; their only remaining option is to persuade Putin himself not to leave office. A similar move was attempted before the 1996 election by the siloviki faction of the time – Korzhakov’s group. And this is precisely where the issue of Chechnya might arise in 2007. Both Putin and his successor have an interest in ensuring that the current version of stability in Chechnya is maintained in the lead-up to elections; so they will continue to support Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime. But those who are “losing the game” would find it advantageous if the situation in the Caucasus is destabilized this summer – with the aim of persuading Putin to stay on. And if even this doesn’t convince Putin to stay, chaos in the Caucasus would help to implement a “hardline scenario” – a direct disruption of the transfer of power and the presidential election, against Putin’s will and without his involvement.

That’s a disaster scenario, of course, and it’s highly unlikely. But the essential problem is still there: in the very near future, Putin must give the elite a clear explanation of how he proposes to maintain the balance of interests and factions after March 2008. Putin’s ability to handle this task will determine what we can expect from 2007 – substantial structural changes in the political system, or an escalation of inter-clan warfare. In any event, it will be an interesting year.