Putin can retain power after 2008 by creating checks and balances

The choice of Putin’s replacement can be entrusted to citizens themselves if the following conditions are met: the candidates are selected in advance, and each of them represents one path for Russia’s development – Sergei Ivanov the moderate conservative, Dmitri Medvedev the moderate liberal.

A year from now – on March 2, 2008 – Russia will hold its next presidential election. Contrary to forecasts, this election may well offer a choice after all.

We can’t rule out the possibility that Vladimir Putin, as he has promised, won’t name any single “successor” at all. He might allow voters themselves to choose who the next president will be: a choice between two candidates he nominates. At any rate, the recent personnel changes in the government are evidence in favor of this scenario.

Sergei Ivanov’s promotion, coming as a surprise to many, has generated several contradictory evaluations of the pre-election situation.

Some say that Ivanov’s successor chances have improved, since Putin has relieved him of responsibility for the military and its problems, and given him equal status with the other favorite, Dmitri Medvedev.

Some say that Medvedev hasn’t lived up to expectations: he’s a poor speaker, he doesn’t look good on television, and the national projects he manages are making sluggish progress. Compared to him, Ivanov looks like an eagle – and he always speaks out strongly for Russia. Even Putin thinks so, in the wake of the Munich conference.

Some say that Putin’s apparent promotion of Ivanov is an illusion; Medvedev remains the favorite, retaining the national projects resources. But Ivanov has lost most of his power base – he no longer has the Defense Ministry behind him, only a few dozen clerks at the Cabinet staff.

And some say that neither Ivanov nor Medvedev is the successor. This isn’t the last round of dismissals and appointments. The real successor has yet to emerge – sometime this spring or summer – while Ivanov and Medvedev will work to support him.

Yet the rise in Ivanov’s status isn’t necessarily a sign that Putin’s views about any individuals have changed (and Putin will make the ultimate decision on the election configuration). It’s far more likely that Ivanov’s appointment is a message from Putin, indicating that he has chosen his technique for handing over power. And within the framework of this technique, individuals aren’t all that important. The roles they will play are far more important: as everyone knows, a good director casts actors to fit the parts (in this case, political roles). Putin is a good director, and he seems to have made his decisions on the technique for transferring power and the main features of the election script.

Not long before Ivanov’s promotion, a senior Kremlin official responded with a laugh to yet another question about the successor, telling a journalist: “Who says there’s going to be a successor? You keep writing that the election should involve alternatives and competition – well, it will.”

An election with alternatives

Putin himself is increasingly inclined to talk of maintaining policy continuity. The impression is that he has found a solution to the Year 2008 Problem. What’s more, his plan is moving into its concluding stages, and Putin is very glad of that. Consequently, contrary to his usual habits, he’s now prepared to talk about it a bit.

At his recent Kremlin press conference, Putin let slip that “there won’t be any successors – there will be candidates for the post of president of the Russian Federation.” And the task of the authorities is only “to ensure a democratic method of coverage for their election campaigns and their explanations of their campaign policies, so that citizens of the Russian Federation can make an informed choice.”

In effect, both of the potential candidates (let’s adopt Putin’s terminology) – Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov – are doing this right now: “explaining” their campaign policies. Medvedev gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, presenting himself as a convinced liberal Westernizer. Then Ivanov went to the international security conference in Munich, where (after Putin) he played the role of a convinced hawk, conservative, and statist. And the fact that Ivanov was promoted straight after this speech is further evidence that he passed the screen test for one of the two leading roles.”

Contrary to the political crowd’s expectations, it looks like Putin may never take on the burden of making the ultimate choice. His position is understandable. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to be held accountable for anything his successor does after 2008. The successor will probably have to do some extremely unpopular things (just look at the list of postponed reforms). And Putin himself might want to make a comeback in 2012. On the other hand, Putin wants to maintain dialogue with that part of the political elite which won’t be happy with the next president (there will be plenty of discontented people, of course, no matter who becomes president in 2008). If Putin names the successor, displeasure with his choice will be extended to Putin himself. If the choice appears to be made by someone else, they will be held accountable.

Paradoxically enough, the only entity who can be entrusted with such a choice is the multi-ethnic Russian people – the ultimate sources of political authority, according to the Constitution.

The choice of Putin’s replacement can be entrusted to citizens themselves if the following conditions are met: the candidates (not “successors” – Putin’s terminology is precise) are selected in advance, and each of them represents one path for Russia’s development (Ivanov represents the moderate conservative path, while Medvedev represents the moderate liberal path).

Political analyst Vladimir Zharikhin says that the option of resolving the Year 2008 Problem “by introducing the successors into the electoral process” seems like the most acceptable option. Zharikhin says: “We haven’t had any public debate about paths of development since 1996. A choice situation, even if it’s modelled in this manner, would have a very beneficial impact on the formation of a normal political process in Russia.” After all, Ivanov and Medvedev are “people with different views, but the same ideology.”

The Kremlin has long since safeguarded itself against the emergence of any “third force” with the hypothetical ability to wedge itself into the battle between the Kremlin’s two favorites and suddenly intercept a victory from one of them. Konstantin Simonov, president of the Russian Political Conjuncture Center, says: “The entire field of politics is already occupied, and the chances of any potential ‘upstart’ are zero.”

According to Zharikhin, “Putin’s approval rating is so high that if he divides it in two, or even in three, the candidates he endorses are sure to make it through to the second round of voting. No need to fear Gennadi Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Mikhail Kasyanov, or anyone else.”

Moreover, all of the more or less coherent political forces will be drawn into supporting one presidential candidate or the other: the pro-West liberal forces will “submit” to Medvedev, and the statist patriots will follow Ivanov. The “superfluous people” – those who don’t join either camp – are likely to find themselves left by the political wayside.

This “binary approach” would also make it possible to shake up the elite groups themselves. A Kremlin-linked political consultant says: “This is a wonderful idea – not allowing our elite to support one candidate en masse. Let them place their bets – let some of them lose!” Only then, says the consultant, “will there be some hope of the losers becoming a normal opposition: not an opposition that threatens to destroy the social order, but an opposition that’s prepared to take the helm at any time.”

All the same, even if this model of transferring power is good from the standpoint of national development prospects, it’s no panacea for Putin himself. If Russia’s third president is to be willing and able to maintain “policy course continuity,” Putin must be seen to be standing behind him.

Putin’s only way of avoiding political oblivion is to create a system of checks and balances in which its unofficial leader (Putin) will play a highly significant role: so that every single cog in the machine understands that no decisions can be made without Putin’s involvement.

Such a system may be taking shape right before our eyes.

As everyone knows, Russia now has two Kremlin-backed parties, conveniently headed by the speakers of the two houses of parliament. Ideological arguments between the speakers often seem amusing, but let’s not forget that many people within the authorities are very serious indeed about the bipolar system.

On the one hand, it offers a chance to secure the cooperation of people in the regional elites who haven’t found a place within one party’s framework (being left out or driven out of United Russia).

On the other hand, there aren’t too many options for building up a multi-party system within an overall system based on the principle of “anyone who isn’t with us is against us.” Yet the Kremlin needs more than one party. As Putin’s second term draws to a close, the nomenklatura is obviously stagnating within United Russia. At his Kremlin press conference, Putin stressed the need for competition between United Russia and Just Russia. So both party projects are here to stay – no matter who their leaders are.

Individuals do matter to some extent, of course. It’s revealing to note that in addition to the two party leaders who are also parliamentary speakers, Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Mironov (this duo is sometimes also mentioned as potential successors), the field of party politics and the parliament is supervised by two other people: Sergei Sobyanin, head of the presidential administration, and his deputy, Vladislav Surkov.

With four people in de facto control of this entire field of activity, relations within the quartet can be very tense at times, according to our sources. Each of these four has direct access to President Putin. But they are also within a complicated system of intersubordination: officially, Gryzlov and Mironov are supposed to coordinate their work with Surkov, who has to consult his direct superior, Sobyanin – and Sobyanin can hardly ignore the opinion of Mironov and Gryzlov, Russia’s third and fourth most senior state officials. Besides, Sobyanin comes from the Tyumen region, while Gryzlov and Mironov are from St. Petersburg.

Due to excessive conflict within this environment, there may well be some personnel changes here in the near future.

Regardless, the field of party politics and the parliament has been structured in such a way that the next president, no matter who he is, won’t be able to manage it without the assistance of a chief arbiter. In the next Duma, United Russia won’t have sole control – it will have to take the Just Russia minority into account. This will only reinforce the need for an arbiter: nothing will get done without Putin.