Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Confounding skeptics who saw him as weak and isolated, President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in eliminating all serious, organized political challenges to his “vertical power structure.” But new political forces are now surfacing and jostling to fill the political vacuum that he has created. The opportunity that is the source of inspiration for these maneuverings is the Y-2008 problem – the question of Putin’s political succession once his constitutionally mandated two terms expire.
At first glance the two obvious candidates to replace Putin are Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Both men are close to Putin, are Kremlin insiders, and have high public visibility. The trouble is that they are deeply unpopular, not only with the public at large but also with the very elite groups that form their natural constituencies. Complicating the situation, according to many observers, is the fragmentation of political factions within the Kremlin. Rather than a simple split between liberals and siloviki, Stanislav Belkovsky argues there are 10 to 12 distinct clans (Komsomolskaya pravda, June 3).
In recent weeks there have been relentless media attacks on Fradkov, who is blamed for the sluggish economic growth (trending 5% this year); persistently high inflation (above 10%); and bungled social reform. When he was appointed in March 2004 he was regarded as a transitional placeholder; he is now seen as having overstayed his welcome (Profil, June 13).
Ivanov, the former intelligence officer Putin brought in as the first civilian defense minister, faced hostility from the military establishment from the very beginning. Senior military officials have publicly criticized the social benefits reform, which saw servicemen lose some crucial in-kind benefits, and they complain about the number and quality of new conscripts. According to a VTsIOM poll of servicemen, only 11% expressed trust in Ivanov; and 48% did not approve of his performance as minister (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 15).
Then in late May Colonel-General Alexander Savenkov, the Military Procurator General, spoke out about the rising crime rate in the armed forces, including the persistent hazing problem that leads to murders and suicides. After criticism from Ivanov, Savenkov released more data on June 14, revealing that there had been 46 non-combat serviceman deaths in the previous week. Ivanov has also been damaged by a scandal surrounding his son, who was involved in a fatal traffic accident (Novye izvestiya, June 16).
Fradkov and Ivanov aside, there are no insider candidates with sufficient experience and stature to be credible. A possible successor would need to be promoted to a more responsible position ahead of 2008 – which would leave him open to the sort of media denigration, presumably instigated by their political rivals, that is being unleashed on Fradkov and Ivanov. Names raised as possible successors include Finance Minister Alexander Kudrin, State Duma Speaker and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov, Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin, and Vladimir Yakunin, a “friend of Putin” recently appointed head of Russian Railroads.
Looking outside the Kremlin walls, the opposition is also marshalling its forces, in part inspired by the wave of populist revolutions that have swept from Tbilisi to Andijan. The “color revolutions” toppled unpopular regimes that had tried to stay in power through rigged elections, only to find that they could not rely on the security forces to quell dissent through mass repression. All of these characteristics apply to the Kremlin, though there are some important differences – most notably the personal popularity of Putin. Still, in a survey of 162 by Vox Populi, the proportion believing that a “color revolution” is possible in Russia doubled from 25 to 58% between December and April (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 27).
On the liberal wing, chess master Garry Kasparov has created a new movement, the United Civic Front. He says, “The regime is scared, and does not have an exit strategy” for a peaceful transfer of power in 2008. He explains that efforts to unite the two main liberal parties, Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, foundered because of differences between their leaders on the question of relations with the Kremlin — even though both parties’ supporters in the provinces wanted to unite. The Union of Right Forces leadership, especially Anatoly Chubais, is determined to have the party play the role of a “loyal opposition.” According to Kasparov, “The dividing line in Russia today is not between the right and the left, but between those who are prepared to resist the Putin regime, which is turning into a dictatorship, and those who continue to service the regime” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 20).
The favored standard-bearer for the oligarchs-in-exile is former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is being cultivated as a would-be Russian equivalent of Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko – another ousted prime minister who staged a comeback, with Western support. But Russia is not Ukraine, and Kasyanov is not Yushchenko (Izvestiya, June 17).
Given the absence of liberal parties from the Duma and their low level of public support, the liberals represent more of an annoyance than a threat to the Kremlin. A more substantial challenge may come from the left, in the form of Dmitry Rogozin’s Rodina (Motherland) party. Rodina was created by the Kremlin as a “disposable” party that would draw support away from the Communists in the December 2003 election. It did better than expected, and under Rogozin’s energetic leadership it has taken on a life of its own. Contrary to the initial intentions of the Kremlin’s political technologists, Rogozin adopted a nationalist rather than leftist rhetoric. He has also skillfully seized on social unrest, staging an 11-day hunger strike with four other deputies in January to protest the social benefits reform.
Rogozin says, “Everyone knows that the present regime is corrupt — and therefore vulnerable.” Yevgeny Zherebenkov writes that with the Communist Party and Rodina cooperating, “The idea of United Russia losing control over the next Duma also seems a realistic possibility” (Itogi, June 14). Such a leftist victory in the 2007 parliamentary election would set up Rogozin as a viable candidate for the presidential election the next year. And if the Kremlin lost control over the State Duma, that would eliminate the possibility of constitutional tinkering (such as a shift to a prime ministerial government) that would be one way to keep Putin in power.
Putin found “managed democracy” difficult to manage; but the system of centralized power that he replaced it with has brought its own set of problems: fragmentation at the center and the breakdown of ties between the regime and the masses.