Looking forward to the presidential election

President Putin has said the words that everyone had long been waiting to hear. He endorsed a proposed presidential candidate: Dmitri Medvedev. At least one source of suspense has now been eliminated. Then again, several others remain.

On Monday, December 10, President Vladimir Putin said the words that everyone had long been waiting to hear. He endorsed a proposed presidential candidate. The momentous declaration was made in the Kremlin, at a meeting with the leaders of four parties: United Russia, Just Russia, the Agrarian Party, and Civil Force. They proposed nominating Dmitri Medvedev as their common presidential candidate.

This announcement from the party quartet clearly symbolized the unity of political forces with regard to the future head of state. The winner of the parliamentary elections isn’t the only party prepared to support him; so are some outsiders – left-wing and right-wing alike. But the most powerful support was clearly provided by the incumbent himself. Simultaneously, he deflated all those who had been expressing doubts, until the very last moment, about whether Putin was really prepared to step down on schedule.

No matter how many times has the President said it (“I won’t seek a third term – there will be someone else in the Kremlin”), some persisted in disbelieving him, or hoping he might change his mind. At least one source of suspense has now been eliminated. Then again, several others remain.

First point of suspense: how confident will Medvedev’s victory be? Few doubt that he will win, given his capability and the resources supporting him. But will he win in the first round, or will a second round of voting be required? Will he win by a small margin or a landslide? Our analysts offer this prediction: Medvedev will win in the first round, getting 51% to 64% of the vote. No less, because a second round would increase the risks in the already-complicated transfer of power. But no more, because then the successor would appear more popular than Putin himself and United Russia, who got 64.3% of the vote in the Duma elections. And that prospect would not be “politically correct.”

Second point of suspense: who will be Medvedev’s rival? A number of people have already announced intentions to run for president: Gennadi Zyuganov, Grigory Yavlinsky, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Boris Nemtsov. Last week brought declarations of intent from former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov – and Oleg Shenin, former Soviet Politburo member and participant in the August 1991 coup attempt. A few other unknowns have also come forward, but they’re unlikely to obtain registration. A separate question: will Medvedev have a double? In 2004, Sergei Mironov entered the presidential race as Putin’s double and safeguard. If all the other candidates had staged a coordinated withdrawal, leaving Putin alone, the election would have been invalidated; Mironov was there to prevent this possibility. But there’s no need for a double this year. Rumor has it that LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has promised not to withdraw under any circumstances; thus, the opposition won’t have a chance to disrupt the election.

Third point of suspense: what will Putin do when Medvedev becomes president? Experts are still discussing the same range of options that would enable the outgoing head of state to remain an influential figure, “guiding and correcting” his protege. Options range from leading the parliamentary majority in the Duma to being simply a “national leader.”

Last point: it’s interesting to note that for the first time in recent years, Putin has made a decision that cannot be described as unpredictable. The designated successor role hasn’t gone to a dark horse – in contrast to Putin’s patter in appointing prime ministers. Medvedev was first identified as a potential successor two years ago, when he was transferred from the presidential administration to the government and placed in charge of the national projects. But attention shifted to Sergei Ivanov on his appointment as the second senior deputy prime minister in early 2007; and when Viktor Zubkov became prime minister in autumn, experts were left thoroughly confused. President Putin has played a “guess the successor” game with the elite, keeping everyone in suspense until the very last moment – and revealing his “joker” only now, when the decision can no longer be postponed. The legal deadline for presidential candidate nominations is next week.

Ariel Cohen, leading expert on Russia and Eurasia, Heritage Foundation:

Firstly, the nomination of Dmitri Medvedev further emphasizes that Vladimir Putin intends to continue playing an active role in Russian politics. Secondly, it indicateds that the Kremlin’s “siloviki” faction has failed to outmaneuver the Kremlin’s “liberals,” the faction Medvedev is believed to represent. I hope that the election of Dmitri Medvedev will lead to stability in Russia. Now we can also start a new round of talks on the numerous and painful questions and differences between Russia and the West. Medvedev is perceived as a rational person, someone we can deal with. But the talks are unlikely to be simple.

Stanislav Belkovsky, founder of the National Strategy Institute:

Food prices may continue rising rapidly in early 2008. According to various estimates, food prices will rise by a further 50-70% by spring – leading to extremely difficult circumstances for at least half of Russia’s families.

According to some forecasts, developed reserves of oil and gas are close to being exhausted. Even at the official level, it is admitted that by 2009-12 Russia may have serious problems with producing enough oil to maintain its export commitments.

The North Caucasus remains a potential danger zone: Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia. Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov has hinted repeatedly that he only takes orders from Vladimir Putin himself. How will Kadyrov behave if someone else becomes president of Russia?

Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation:

The government is under strong pressure to increase social payments. This could have a serious impact on inflation. As for the North Caucasus regions, some tension does indeed persist there, but upheaval is unlikely. I think the new president will have more problems with the South Caucasus. We can expect renewed and more serious acts of provocation from Georgia in relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Dmitri Badovsky, deputy director, Social Systems Institute:

Of course, there will be some attempts to test the endurance of the new president and Russia’s political system. The legitimacy of Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections may be questioned. There could be increased media pressure and political pressure on Russia next spring. Certain countries may renew their attempts to accuse Russia of “energy blackmail.”