Post-Putin Russia might have a figurehead president

Putin might step down as president, but still remain the most weighty figure in Russian politics. Russia’s next presidential election might be won by a “technical” president – and that person could well be Sergei Stepashin, former prime minister and now head of the Auditing Chamber.

President Vladimir Putin is now what the Americans call a lame duck: a president whose political days are numbered. Indeed, 2008 is just around the corner, bringing a presidential election, and Putin has stated over and over again that he will not be a candidate. However, as Comrade Sukhov rightly observed, the East is subtle. And in relation to America, our country really is the East – something like Byzantium. Thus, Putin’s statements might turn out to be a bluff. Not a straightforward American bluff, but a sophisticated Eastern bluff. Putin might step down as president, but still remain the most weighty figure in Russian and international politics. Consider the implications of a remark he made during his February press conference: “My sport was judo, not light athletics. I have no intention of running away.”

In order to make any assumptions about Putin’s subsequent moves, it’s important to understand his motivations. We have studied newspaper articles, tracking comparisons between Putin and other political figures. The figures mentioned most frequently are Peter the Great and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Curiously enough, in 2000 Putin was more often compared to Peter the Great (35% of articles) than to Roosevelt (5%). By 2007, the situaiton was reversed: 5% and 34% respectively. The reversal happened in 2005, and there are solid reasons for that.

By then, the “equidistancing oligarchs” process was over, and regional leaders had been “brought into line.” The role of the security and law enforcement agencies had been enhanced, and people from a special services background had been recruited into government. In short, the processes of strengthening the state’s role had been completed – the processes once compared to Peter the Great’s actions (beheading the Streltsy and shaving off noblemen’s beards). The time had come to build a new St. Petersburg, or a new Russia. And so Putin-Roosevelt stepped into the foreground.

Parallels with FDR are easy to draw: the Great Depression, and the New Deal that empowered the state to intervene in business affairs, restraining oligarchs like Rockefeller and Morgan, lifting America out of its economic crevasse. Roosevelt was strongly criticized for that state intervention, until it became clear that he had managed to find the optimal combination of the free market and the state’s strong hand. Free market mechanisms weren’t destroyed, but they did become more orderly. The state didn’t devour the private sector, but it did take responsibility for the most important (not the most profitable) sectors of the economy.

An important detail: both of Putin’s “prototypes” were noted for their enviable political longevity. Peter the Great reigned longer than any other Russian monarch (counting from his coronation); Roosevelt remained in office longer than any other American president. So why not assume that Putin is impressed by this strategic management style?

In order to engage in strategy, it isn’t necessary to be on the throne. In that kind of situation, Russian politicians refer to the monarch’s role as “technical.” This term was introduced into the media when Mikhail Kasyanov was prime minister, and then Mikhail Fradkov was stuck with the label of technical prime minister. Why not assume that a president can also be “technical,” just like a prime minister? Is that a paradox? But Russia has seen some precedents.

What kind of qualities should a “technical” president have? First of all, he should be from St. Petersburg. And he must have a background in the security and law enforcement agencies (siloviki). As Putin loves to point out, there’s no such thing as an ex-spy. Another mandatory requirement is that the candidate should understand economic affairs, social policy, and state administration, possessing the appropriate experience and career record. Moreover, he should be active at the federal level of politics. And (of course) he needs to be reliable, loyal, and unambitious! Otherwise, the “technical” president might rebel against the predecessor who installed him in power.

None of the currently prominent politicians meet these requirements: Sergei Ivanov, Sergei Mironov, Alexander Tkachev, Dmitri Medvedev. But Auditing Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin fits the pattern almost perfectly.

You don’t like Stepashin? You think he’s a has-been? Not at all. How could a has-been oversee all of Russia’s state funding channels? Stepashin knows who’s been stealing, and how much. He knows the Russian economy like the back of his hand. Let’s not forget that Stepashin used to head the Federal Security Service (FSB), and then he tried out the political heavyweight role, serving as prime minister, if only for three months. Another factor in his favor is that he surrendered the office of prime minister to Putin himself, and remained on good terms with him.

Whichever way you look at it, Stepashin seems ideally suited to the “technical” president role. It’s also noteworthy that he’s retreated into the background of late. This kind of move is ususally made before the start of an aggressive publicity campaign for a candidate.

Valery Khomyakov, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council:

It’s hard to compare Putin and Roosevelt – different countries, different times. Besides, Putin hasn’t become a historical figure yet. Twenty or thirty years from now, it will become clear how similar they are in that they became national leaders under difficult circumstances. In my view, however, Putin is quite sincere when he says that he intends to step down. On the other hand, his team is getting nervous – hence the attempts to give Putin some legitimate position not as a future president, but as an ex-president who will remain the most influential person in Russia. That’s what Vladislav Surkov is talking about, and Gleb Pavlovsky. So don’t you worry – whatever Putin goes on to do, he will still remain in power and at the nation’s helm, even without holding any formal office. Plans for this scenario have led to the replacement of Alexander Veshnyakov as head of the Central Electoral Commission, and open fraud in the latest regional elections. I don’t rule out the possibility of the same thing being done in the Duma election and the presidential election, in order to show the outside world that the new president hasn’t been elected in an entirely legitimate manner. And then only Putin will remain – running everything – while the new president becomes small fry.

Alexei Mitrofanov, LDPR faction, deputy chairman of the Duma’s constitutional law and state-building committee:

We shouldn’t idolize Roosevelt. We imagine him as a progressive politician – but that wasn’t the case, actually. He confiscated gold from banks, like a raider. Black Americans and women didn’t have the right to vote when he was in power, and there was racial segregation. It wasn’t Roosevelt who got America out of its crisis – it was the war in Europe, when the American economy made money from arms sales to countries including the USSR. So Roosevelt and Putin have nothing in common.

Igor Bunin, director of the Political Techniques Center:

America entered a war at that time. If a war started here right now – God forbid – then there wouldn’t be a problem. Everyone would rush to Putin and beg him to save us all. Save us from whom? I don’t know. Georgia, for example. But since we don’t have a war, there’s no one to save us from. And the current policy course will continue even if Putin is no longer in power. I see no reason for it to change. Besides, Putin has told us a hundred times that he is stepping down. In order to remain in office, he would have to amend the Constitution – but that would mean going back on his word, which would seem rather odd. If he’d meant to do it, he should have said so earlier. And all these rumors are arising because our country has a long tradition of leaders remaining in office for life. Besides, Roosevelt wasn’t bound by any constitutional restrictions. The two-term limit wasn’t introduced until after his time.

Dmitri Oreshkin, political analyst:

Putin’s Russia and Roosevelt’s America have only one thing in common: the severe economic crisis faced by America in the 1930s and Russia in the 1990s. The difference is that Roosevelt’s personal role in surmounting that crisis was fairly substantial, but the Russian economy recovered on its own. Putin was just lucky in that he came to power in 1999, just as economic growth was taking off. So the analogy is strained. However, there’s at least a 50% chance of Putin staying on for a third term. What’s important here isn’t the pretext, but the system’s needs. Putin has built the kind of system where practically everything depends on the single individual at the peak of the pyramid. And anyone who gives up that position is taking a great risk – leaving himself vulnerable. There’s no exit strategy. In normal democracies, politicians can serve their terms in office and move on to do something else – lecturing, for example. But in Russia, everything you have gained – all your hard-earned income – isn’t secure at all, because the will of the supreme leader overrides the rule of law.