The House That Putin Built
Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement on 12 September that he was appointing the virtually unknown bureaucrat Viktor Zubkov as prime minister caught Kremlin-watchers off guard. It triggered feverish speculation about possible scenarios for the evolution of Russian politics in the run-up to the March 2008 presidential election. (Zubkov himself was among those surprised: he was only told of his new job the day before.)
As the initial shock subsided, a loose consensus emerged that Zubkov's appointment does not represent a decisive turning point. Rather, its purpose is to prolong the uncertainty over who will be Russia's next president.
All the signs had been pointing to First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as the anointed successor. Zubkov's elevation opens up a new set of possibilities, including the suggestion that Zubkov himself might be a candidate for the presidency.
But as the Russian journalist Yulia Latynina pointed out, it is a stunning change that in practice changes nothing. Logically, there are three options: Putin will stay on as president; he will appoint someone else; or he will leave office and then return at a later date. The Zubkov appointment is compatible with all three outcomes.
Analysts can still be divided into two familiar camps: those for whom Putin can do no wrong, and those for whom he can do nothing right. The former group regard the switching of Zubkov for the man who was prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, as a master-stroke that proved once again that Putin is in total control of the Russian political game, a chess player thinking half a dozen moves ahead.
For the skeptics, it was yet another example of Putin the procrastinator. They argue Putin cannot bring himself to name a successor—for fear of being treated as a lame duck president, or simply because he is still undecided about who should be his designated successor.
For the master-Machiavellian school, Putin's indecisiveness is not a character flaw, but a wily political strategy: uncertainty, and control over access to information about what is really happening, is Putin's main political resource. Hence Aleksei Makarkin argued in Vedomosti on 13 September that "Rather than discussing the successor question, the leading figures in Putin's inner circle will now discuss other things—such as their own prospects in the government, and the structure of the new cabinet."
Some analysts consider Zubkov a serious candidate for the presidency in his own right. He would either be a temporary "disposable" president who would soon step down, enabling Putin to return to power. Or he might be a stabilizing presence at the helm, a caretaker president that would allow Putin to stay in control of political life (while serving as chair of the State Council or Security Council, high-level bodies that advise the president on domestic and security affairs). A third possibility is that we may be witnessing a transfer of power to a "collective leadership," like the Communist Party Politburo of the early 1960s. Unable to agree on a single successor, the various factions of the "Putin team" would serve under Zubkov as a neutral referee.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it overlooks one simple fact. The Russian presidency is not merely a tool of Kremlin power struggles; it is also the institutional face of Russia to the outside world. The urbane, English-speaking Ivanov would be an effective substitute for Putin in that role, but the monosyllabic Zubkov would not. A country can only have one president at a time. Even if Putin became chair of the State Council or Security Council, protocol would presumably prevent him from attending international gatherings as head of state.
Zubkov has had some limited overseas experience in his capacity as head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, taking part in international meetings to combat money laundering.
But his political skills were honed during his 15 years as a collective farm director: it is hard to imagine such a figure maturing overnight into a statesman who can deal with world leaders on a first-name basis. (There is one other farm director who became a president, and it is not an encouraging precedent: Alyaksandr Lukashenka.) Age is also a factor working against Zubkov. He has just turned 66, and had been due to step down as agency director because he had reached retirement age for civil servants.
So, the appointment of Zubkov may have less to do with the presidency and more to do with the post of prime minister. Why was it necessary for Putin to remove Fradkov? Fradkov had simply been in power too long, since March 2004. Various ministers had become unpopular, and could be a liability for the ruling party in the upcoming elections. When Fradkov resigned, by law the entire government also had to resign. By "rebooting" the government Putin has generated a sense of change, while at the same time preparing the ground for a smooth transition of power.
This is exactly what he did when he appointed Fradkov as prime minister just weeks before the March 2004 presidential election. Rather than prolonging the uncertainty, Putin himself claims that the renewal of the government is designed to ensure continuity in leadership. Speaking in Belgorod on 13 September, he said: "Concentration wavers when people don't know what is going to happen to them. I decided to remove all these doubts, just the way we did before the previous election in 2004."
The events of 2004 aside, historical precedent is unfortunately not much help in trying to make sense of the current round of Kremlinological maneuvering. The handover of the presidency from Boris Yeltsin to Putin on 31 December 1999 was the first peaceful and legitimate transfer of power in Russian history. That was a unique event, and the political situation surrounding the current power transition is quite different.
Prior to the 1999 presidential succession, the post of prime minister had served as a training ground for potential successors. Yeltsin had cycled through four premiers in 18 months before finding Putin. But Zubkov is not a serious candidate for the presidency, for the reasons outlined above; and Putin does not need to use the premiership to "try out" possible candidates. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin is a popular and trusted leader, and both the elite and the mass electorate will embrace any candidate whom he endorses as president.
In 1999 there was a vigorous challenge to the Kremlin from regional leaders and oligarchs, who had a firm foothold in the Duma. There was a real chance that they would come up with a presidential candidate who could defeat the Kremlin's nominee. No such possibility will exist in 2008, thanks to Putin's lock-hold over the parliament, the media, and regional elites. Another important difference from 1999 is that Yeltsin's political career was at an end. In contrast Putin is alive and kicking and has a bright political future—if only he wants it.
THE RUSSIAN CALENDAR
What happens now? Zubkov's government reshuffle may give some indications of the course of future policy: we may see the departure of some of the embattled "liberal" ministers. But it is unlikely that the leading candidates for the presidency, Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev, will be affected.
The next date to watch is 2 October. That is the deadline for parties to file candidate lists for the 2 December State Duma election. Putin may want to use the parliamentary contest as a sort of primary for the presidential race, in which case Ivanov (and Medvedev?) would appear at the top of the United Russia list.
But given the pattern of the past eight years, it is more likely that Putin will want to keep the presidency "above" party politics. In that case we might even have to wait until 18 January, the filing deadline for presidential contenders, to learn who will be the next leader of Russia.
There are other problems with the "collective Putin" scenario. Russia has had bad experiences with collective leadership, and Putin himself did not develop any stable institutional structures capable of overcoming coordination problems among elite factions. An effective president will have to be a single individual, one who enjoys complete authority.