Falling leaves

The tensest summer of the past decade in Russia is over. September is about to bring back the political battles – within the elite, within the opposition and between these two heterogeneous groups – to full swing. In 2008, it was the autumn that saw succession wars calm down, but in 2012, succession season is just about to begin. Interestingly enough, the prime question of whether and with whom Dmitry Medvedev may be replaced is massively intertwined with questions about the succession of Vladimir Putin.

The fact that Medvedev is close to being dismissed is becoming more and more obvious. Medvedev has practically disappeared from Russian media, which, on the other hand, has been abundant with reports and surveys telling how awful Medvedev’s government started up and how unpopular it has been getting in just a couple of months. This is no surprise. When Medvedev took over as Prime Minister in May, I blogged that the while conservatives had retired to the safe haven of the Presidential Administration, the main battleground now would be the government. Liberals, however, don’t even seem to have put up a considerable fight so far. It was Medvedev’s Duma that adopted a set of anachronistically repressive laws, and it was Medvedev’s government that had to make peace with further blows dealt to privatisation and a slide towards a greater role of the state in energy markets (although, notably, the first Deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich has been visibly trying to oppose the growing influence of the energy tsar Igor Sechin).

Mind you, even if Dmitry Medvedev once thought that swapping the presidency for the PM’s position plus the leadership of United Russia was a fair deal (which I doubt he ever did, or that he had much choice for that matter), to keen observers of Russian politics it must have been obvious from the beginning that putting Medvedev together with the governing party, an organisation he had never been close to, was not a good idea. Furthermore, he showed himself to be amazingly grey and clueless in his new role: he had either lost his ideas together with his political credibility – which makes him no different from the average Russian official – or he has been simply too weak – again, astonishingly weak – within an elite that had completely lost its ideas and perspectives, which in turn makes him unfit to lead the technocratic/liberal wing of the elite. But which, on the other hand, makes him perfectly fit to be a scapegoat for the regime’s faults. From this point of view, it ultimately does not matter whether it is the October regional polls, the failure to initiate a reform of the welfare system or something else that will lead to his dismissal.

On the other hand, it does matter a lot who would take over the position from Medvedev, should he be dismissed.

The discussion is as much about the actual person taking over the position from Medvedev as about the role of the Prime Minister in the new system. The Prime Minister can essentially be either 1.) a counterweight to the President (like Putin); 2.) an executor (like Zubkov); or 3.) an internal balancer (like Fradkov).

It is obvious, however – to me, at least – that any system Putin chooses to continue with cannot resemble to the way of governance during his first two terms, nor can it be similar to the tandemocracy of the past four years.

Furthermore, Putin must face the fact that his own succession is becoming an increasingly topical issue. It’s something he cannot but delay – however embarrassingly he’s trying to use old methods like inventing bonmots and doing a superhero video (this time with cranes). Another problem is that with an increasing number of dissenters in the upper and lower echelons of the state administration, he apparently does not have sufficient administrative resources any more to get rid of challengers the easy way. He must either tie them to himself or expose them to erosion.

My guess is that the government will continue to be the main battlefield and the showcase of unpopular reforms, like the pension reform or next year’s budget. Thus, Putin may either want to put a balancer or a possible challenger to the position, in order to amortise him.  Having both at the same time, would be, of course, the best.

In his latest PV Podcast, Brian Whitmore pondered upon whether it would be wiser for Putin to appoint a “real” or a “technical” Prime Minister. I think that, for the above reasons, Putin will definitely need a real Prime Minister. However, I don’t think that a Prime Minister should necessarily be strong if he is to be real. In Putin’s terms, for example, Dmitry Rogozin is not a strong politician, as he has little or no clan background. From this point of view, he could even become a “conservative Medvedev”. Also, Rogozin is now widely considered to be one of those officials who might succeed Putin, should the elite deem it necessary to sacrifice the President.

On the other hand, he has just been put to the helm of Putin’s flagship military modernisation programme. While I don’t exclude the possibility, I guess it’s unlikely that 3 months after getting such an appointment Rogozin will be appointed PM. Certainly, leading a military programme with enormous resources is an opportunity given to him to prove his worth, but what’s more important is that he must prove it to Putin, who, quite possibly, has longer-term plans with him.

Another obvious successor to Medvedev would be the former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who in recent months has been less active than before, nevertheless he did not give up publishing recommendations on economic policy – most recently about the pension reform, which, coincidentally, would be one of the main issues the Russian government has to face in the following months. Also, he was promised the position long ago.

Or take Vice-PM Igor Shuvalov, a smooth technocrat with an arguably strong character, but a small circle of allies, just like Rogozin. Furthermore, he’s a skilled problem solver and balancer, who, albeit not a liberal in the strict sense, is trusted by investors. This would make him appealing as a compromise, interim successor to Putin to a much greater part of the elite than Kudrin, a known liberal.

There’s a third option, of course, the one when Putin chooses a conservative hardliner, like his chief of staff, Sergey Ivanov, or a similar official from the Presidential Administration. It wouldn’t be a surprise either: after all, if we apply Occam’s razor to the events of the past couple of months, and decide that Putin has really lost his way in the “new arithmetic of power” (as Mark Galeotti put it), the conservative turn can be viewed simply as a desperate attempt to tighten screws rather than a chiseled master plan. This would, however, also indicate that conservative circles now exert an almost hegemonic influence on Putin’s way of thinking.

One way or another, the appointment of the new Prime Minister – should there be one – will show whom Vladimir Putin is – or should be – afraid of.

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