Operation Successor: demystifying the succession concept

The term “Operation Successor” has become such a favorite that it can’t possibly be abandoned – it sounds too good, too conspiratorial. And so what if there isn’t much meaning behind the sound of it? Making sense isn’t an essential requirement for analysts.

“There won’t be any successors,” said President Vladimir Putin during his press conference last week. Naturally, this statement hasn’t discouraged analysts in the least; they are discussing the subterfuges and subtleties of the impending Operation Successor with redoubled energy. This expression has become such a favorite that it can’t possibly be abandoned – it sounds too good, too conspiratorial. And so what if there isn’t much meaning behind the sound of it? Making sense isn’t an essential requirement for analysts.

In fact, the magic word “successor” only means “the person who takes over from the predecessor.” No matter who becomes the next president – Mikhail Kasyanov, or even Drevarkh the Enlightened, the Tree-Man from Arkhangelsk – he would still be Putin’s successor, by definition. No one is bothered by statements like “his successor changed everything radically”; and saying that “Viktor Yushchenko, Leonid Kuchma’s successor as president of Ukraine, did such-and-such” does not imply that the Kuchma and Yushchenko administrations are completely identical or completely different. All it means is that Yushchenko succeeded Kuchma as president of Ukraine.

But if “successor” is understood to mean not merely the next president, but a president who will continue the current president’s policies, then two further points need to be clarified. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to hand over the state to a ruler who won’t immediately start dismantling everything. On the other hand, complete continuity in policy never happens anyway. Even in a monarchy, the ideal successor – a newly-crowned sovereign who sincerely honors his late father’s memory – is sure to do some things differently from his predecessor. This is also bound to happen whenever a new president takes over, if only because there’s no such thing as a 100% accurate copy of the previous ruler.

But then the word “operation” – pronounced with great emphasis, as if this concerns some sort of treacherous, unlawful activity – only means that those at the top will probably try to agree on a common candidate who is seen as likely to ensure continuity for current policies and prevent any significant upheavals. And the outgoing president “reserves the right to express some preferences” during the election campaign. Whether this preference is expressed directly (“I call on you to support Candidate A”) or indirectly (in the form of embraces and handshakes) doesn’t really matter, since the outgoing ruler, like any other citizen, does have the right to express a preference. And it is likely to be effective. President Putin’s high approval rating could facilitate the success of his recommendations – and so could the fairly high level of conformism in our society. Polls indicate that only 5-10% of Russian citizens really want some changes; the rest are either loyalist or indifferent. Of course, serious errors could negate even the most favorable position – for example, if the Kremlin’s consolidated candidate is obviously unsuited to the job – but the Kremlin is unlikely to act in such a self-destructive way.

In that sense, a smooth transition of power seems to be entirely feasible and lawful. If anyone doesn’t like the idea of the next president continuing current policies, their opposition shouldn’t emphasize the fact that the ruling elite agreed on and expressed a preference for this successor (there’s nothing wrong with that); they should emphasize major irregularities in the voting process (really wrong).

However, given the present-day configuration (barring any extraordinary developments, external disasters, or a fit of extreme domestic insanity), there is no need for any irregularities in the voting process. There is no strong opposition candidate at present, and it would be unrealistic to believe that such a candidate could emerge from nowhere and build up support within a year. And current opposition leaders might as well be given all the television coverage they want, since they would present such a pathetic spectacle that the Kremlin’s election objectives would be achieved without any need for irregularities during voting.

Like it or not, there is no sign of any major upsets in the forthcoming election cycle. That’s how it is, and scary words can’t change an objective correlation of forces.