President Putin’s unofficial successors

Both Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev are likely to be candidates in the presidential election. There might even be two rounds of voting – so citizens will face the painful choice between these two politicians. Either way, Putin’s policy course will end up in safe hands.

Who will become Russia’s third president? It’s not an idle question, by any means. Several federal-level politicians have already come forward as contenders, but most of the suspense has been added by President Vladimir Putin.

As expected, media interest at Putin’s major press conference on February 1 focused on the successor question. It was mentioned four times, in one form or another. But Putin confined himself to one cryptic sentence: “As for successors, I have expressed my view on this many times already – there won’t be any successors.” This response might give rise to all kinds of interpretations; even the idea that the Kremlin won’t name any candidate at all. Yet it turns out that there will be a candidate. A Reuters journalist reminded Putin that he had promised to indicate his preferences. The journalist pushed for a response: “The fact remains that you’re the most popular and most significant politician in the country, and analysts say that your opinion will be decisive.” But Putin managed to evade this with another cryptic phrase – “All the necessary people are already doing their jobs” – and advised journalists “not to fuss over the upcoming elections.” Putin let it be understood that he won’t name his successor until autumn at the earliest. “I reserve the right to express some sort of preferences, of course. But I’ll only do this during the election campaign,” he said, not specifying which election campaign. He might have meant the presidential campaign, starting in December, or the parliamentary campaign, starting in September.

The paradox of contemporary Russian politics is that absolutely everyone is living in anticipation of the official successor announcement. The solution might appear to be simple: all Putin has to do is name his successor, and everyone will calm down – politicians, business leaders, and ordinary voters (understanding how they should vote). But then the national election process would turn into a common political farce. Consequently, Putin’s successor might end up feeling highly uncomfortable in the president’s chair – facing justifiable accusations of illegitimacy from Western ill-wishers and the domestic opposition. Thus, Putin needs to prevaricate every time he’s asked a question about this, even though his preferred candidates are entirely obvious: Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Equal starting conditions have been created for both of them, with a view to making them popular among the common people.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was promoted to deputy prime minister in charge of all national defense issues. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian citizens have experienced inherent nostalgia for the superpower. All right, so life in the Soviet era was somewhat cold and bleak, but at least we were respected and feared – so why not make that our national idea? And Sergei Ivanov has indeed managed to achieve a great deal. In defense matters, to borrow Putin’s expression, we are capable of making an “asymmetric response” to anything at all, particularly missile defense systems.

Dmitri Medvedev, former head of the presidential administration, was promoted to an office created especially for his benefit: first deputy prime minister in charge of implementing the national priority projects. Progress on the national projects is reported daily by all of Russia’s electronic media: a new school opened here, a new apartment building there, all hospitals receiving new ambulances. People are already joking about Medvedev acting as a “year-round Father Christmas” – and like any joke, this contains a measure of truth.

The results are evident. The latest opinion polls show First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev taking second place after Vladimir Putin on public confidence – slightly ahead of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Medvedev doesn’t restrict himself to working on the national projects alone; he also speaks out on current political issues. At a recent meeting with youth movement representatives, for example, Medvedev said that he and Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, do not disagree over the meaning of democracy. This followed some apparently contradictory statements about democracy from Medvedev and Surkov, leading many to conclude that the two politicians disagreed on this issue. “Regarding this minor dispute about terminology, we don’t have any fundamental differences of opinion,” said Medvedev. “Any terms may be used. As I’ve said before, terminology isn’t the point. What’s important is a country’s actual political regime.” Medvedev added that “democracy is an element of the political regime.” Note that Surkov insists on using “sovereign democracy,” the term he coined, while Medvedev says he is inclined to prefer “classic definitions.”

According to analysts, both Ivanov and Medvedev are likely to be candidates in the presidential election. For the sake of observing Russia’s budding democratic traditions, there might even be two rounds of voting – so citizens will face the painful choice between these two politicians. Either way, Putin’s policy course will end up in safe hands.

Playing a decorative role

Several other politicians have already declared their intention to run for president: Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and former Duma speaker Gennadi Seleznev. Their chances of success are negligible.

Zhirinovsky, for example, has said that he will be in the race in 2008, but doesn’t expect to do better than second place. The United Russia party’s leader, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, has said that his party intends to nominate its own candidate in 2008 – but the candidate’s identity remains unknown. Still, let’s not anticipate events; after all, the Duma election is due to take place first, as a rehearsal for the presidential election.