The new government – and President Putin’s other decisions

This is not a decision. It’s a means of postponing a decision, and an additional guarantee of Putin’s personal safety, since the new government appointments mean that no matter who becomes the successor, the Cabinet ministers will be Putin’s appointees.

President Putin is known to dislike making decisions. He delays making them – and when he does make them, he’ll choose the option that is more of a compromise. This replacement of the prime minister is a fine example of that.

What does it mean in terms of the presidential race?

It means all kinds of things, as usual. On the one hand, Mikhail Fradkov has been dismissed – to the obvious panic and humiliation of the “third term party,” who wanted to see him become a “technical president.” On the other hand, a complete Fradkov-clone has been appointed: Viktor Zubkov, originally from St. Petersburg, father-in-law of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov – the rising star of Russian politics, closely linked to Igor Sechin by the YUKOS affair.

In other words, this is not a decision. It’s a means of postponing a decision, and an additional guarantee of Putin’s personal safety, since the new government appointments mean that no matter who becomes the successor, the Cabinet ministers will be Putin’s appointees.

After all, the real question isn’t who will be the prime minister. The question is who will be president. And that question has been postponed.

The formal configuration looks like this. There are two official successors: Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev. And then there’s the “third term party”: usually associated with Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration, his ally Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, presidential aide Viktor Ivanov, and others.

There are two important points to bear in mind here. Firstly, the “third term party” is very large. The “third term party” includes all the people who have gained something (influence, property, the assets of expropriated dwarfs) from this particular regime configuration, and who are now afraid that once the Lord of the Rings is replace by another, all their gains will melt away like so much smoke. That’s because their positions, influence, and power have nothing to do with their personal merits, intelligence, prudence, or even cunning; they are simply a consequence of connections, such as membership of the Ozero cooperative.

Secondly, the “third term party” is not a synonym for “people who are loyal to Putin.” Actually, they’re loyal to the money they have made during the Putin era. Thus, what’s really important to them is that they themselves – not necessarily Putin – should remain in power. So they would be satisfied with any president who remains in precisely the same configuration as Putin, in relation to them. Mikhail Fradkov or Vladimir Ustinov, for example. At one point, the “third term party” was boosting Ustinov so hard that the attention went to his head; according to eye-witnesses, he chaired Prosecutor General’s Office collegium meetings with the air of a future president – someone who would really sort out YUKOS and others like it, in contrast to that weakling Putin’s half-measures. And this was precisely what led to Ustinov’s fall.

In theory, President Putin has three options.

First: he could leave. The advantage of this option is that President Putin would depart victorious.

Second: he could stay on. The greatest disadvantage here is that this would make President Putin entirely dependent on those around him. Staying on would mean that we’re surrounded by enemies – the hostile West, Orange spies, Berezovsky’s agents. Staying on would mean remaining president, but becoming a puppet.

Third: he could leave in order to return. He could arrange for a “technical” president to keep his seat warm; then, after a year or two, that president would amend the Constitution, extending the presidential term in office to five or seven years; and then there would be an early election, with Putin becoming president again. The disadvantage of this option is that it’s hard to find a suitable caretaker: someone capable of minding the One Ring for a year or two, then giving it back.

And the problem is that none of these solutions can be good – whether for Putin himself or for our country as a whole.

Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister:

The Constitution allows the president to dismiss the government – at any moment, practically. There are two possible scenarios for that. First: a conflict between the government and the Duma. Second: the political situation. For political reasons, if the government can’t cope with its duties, it may resign early – and the president acknowledges those reasons; or the president himself may decide that the government isn’t coping with its constitutional duties. In the present case, as we know, the president accepted the government’s resignation without fully explaining the reasons.

The new prime minister won’t change the policy course. There’s zero probability of that, in my view. And I really don’t care if he’s the successor or not. I’m looking at political, not personal, motivations. In evaluating any particular person, what’s important to me is whether the policy course will be continued.

Liubov Sliska, senior deputy Duma speaker, United Russia:

Of course, it would be hard to find anyone in Russia who could match Viktor Alekseevich Zubkov’s career history and enviable record. So I would very much like to see him be a worthy prime minister, with everything working out for him, and his health holding up to the demands of the job. I hope he will be a prime minister we need never be ashamed of. His achievements in his previous roles and offices leave a good impression. I think everything will work out for him – he’s a good choice. And I don’t want to speculate about whether he’ll be a prime minister with the prospect of becoming president. I’m sick of predictions. I don’t like to discuss this. Let the political analysts and astrologists try to predict the future – but he’s a wonderful choice for prime minister.

Boris Nemtsov, former senior deputy prime minister, a leader of the Union of Right Forces party:

I wasn’t surprised by Fradkov’s resignation, but the identity of the new prime minister goes beyond the categories of good or bad, in my view. Nominating a complete unknown for prime minister? It’s humiliating for all of us: taking a 66-year-old person who’s been running a special service known as “financial intelligence” and saying: here you go, here’s your prime minister! The move is comparable only to the appointment of a former furniture retailer as defense minister.