The successor-guessing process moves into high gear

Guesswork about the successor’s identity is intensifying. The number of names being mentioned is rising: Sergei Ivanov, Dmitri Medvedev, Sergei Naryshkin, Vladimir Yakunin, Sergei Sobyanin, Valentina Matviyenko, Alexander Khloponin. But there’s still no certainty.

Guesswork about the successor’s identity is intensifying. The number of names being mentioned is rising – thus allowing analysts to theorize about one intrigue after another, competing with each other in political insight. But there’s still no certainty. There’s only a somewhat provisional list of potential contenders, with the occasional addition of a new name to the list creating a media furor but not clarifying the situation at all.

The two “active candidates” are obvious – Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev – but the mention of a potential third candidate has prompted an avalanche of speculations from political analysts about that person’s identity. Within a few days, Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, also said that he regards the “third candidate theory” as a realistic possibility; and the candidate should be a person who does not presently hold a senior position in any state-owned holding company, and is not directly involved with major revenue streams.

Of course, this whole theory might only be intended to maintain the greatest source of political suspense in 2007-08. When Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia’s general council presidium secretary, hinted that Sergei Ivanov might be among the top three candidates on United Russia’s federal list, it became clear that Ivanov is starting to pull ahead of Medvedev in their intra-Kremlin rivalry. And the state media pendulum seems to be swinging toward Ivanov as well. The successor will be chosen before the election campaign begins; this is clear from Sergei Mironov’s statement that Just Russia will not field a candidate of its own, but will endorse one of the registered candidates.

Such an early end to the political suspense would be a disadvantage for analysts, depriving them of their accustomed function as readers of the Kremlin’s tea-leaves. And as soon as the public finds out the designated successor’s name, the lame duck effect will set in. Vladimir Putin will not be its main victim; rather, it will have an impact on members of Putin’s inner circle who aren’t in the support groups of either successor favorite.

Until recently, this particular section of Putin’s team was known as the “third term party” – those lobbying for Putin to stay on as president. Now that this outcome seems almost entirely impossible, the “third term party” has only one option: upholding the idea of a “secret third candidate.” Who might that person be? The most fashionable answer at the moment: Sergei Naryshkin, deputy prime minister and Cabinet chief-of-staff, who has just been appointed as Putin’s special envoy for integration cooperation with CIS countries.

There are occasional predictions that Russian Railroads chief Vladimir Yakunin might be the successor. He is one of the St. Petersburg people, and his association with Putin dates back to the late 1980s. Yakunin is rarely seen on television, but he often accompanies Putin on visits abroad. Media reports used to predict that he might be appointed as presidential envoy for the North-Western federal district, or prime minister, or head of the presidential administration. Yakutin chairs the boards of trustees at the Center of Russia’s National Glory and the Apostle Andrei Foundation, performing significant functions related to Russian Orthodoxy – for example, delivering the Blessed Flame from Jerusalem to Moscow.

Over the past year, almost every discussion of potential successors has mentioned Sergei Sobyanin, head of the presidential administration. Within a relatively short time, he has managed to become a key figure in the Kremlin – in terms of real, not nominal, political weight.

In recent comments on the need to increase the presidential term of office, Putin said that some regional leader might become the head of state. Aside from Sobyanin (former governor of the Tyumen region), experts generally mention St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko – and Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin, head of Russia’s largest and richest region.

Then again, as Federation Council member Alexander Torshin so acutely observes, “in all my time in the Senate, I have never heard anyone make an accurate prediction about any of Putin’s appointments.”