Kiselyov on Putin’s Plan

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevgeny Kiselyov examines Putin’s plan for Russia:

The three major political events of the last three weeks in Russia — the change of prime ministers, the reshuffling of the Cabinet and, finally, President Vladimir Putin’s decision to top the election ticket for United Russia — all show one thing to be true: There is just one real politician in this country and his name is Putin.

Judging from events over these last three weeks, Putin measures the merit of a government figure by his ability to make major political decisions in conditions of absolute secrecy. Putin loves to throw up his own smoke screens around decisions, intentionally fueling a host of rumors and leaking information to the press that soon turns out to be pure disinformation.

The day before Putin replaced Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov with Viktor Zubkov, high-ranking administration officials told a number of journalists that Putin would name First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov to that post the next day.

Before the new Cabinet was announced last week, remember how rumors had spread wildly about the many imminent dismissals, how ministries would be either merged or split and other huge changes in the government.

Recall that as recently as Friday, information purportedly coming from United Russia’s leadership suggested that the top three players in the party would be Ivanov, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko.

And then, as always, came the surprise twist. The president, as if he were relishing the way he always catches people off guard unexpectedly, announced his decision. And, as usual, it was not what people expected at all.

Now we can pose a few hypothetical questions.

Following State Duma elections in December, can Putin leave office early? Yes, he can. As the leader of United Russia — which will undoubtedly win an impressive victory — this maneuver would allow Putin to become the speaker of the State Duma.

Could the president, after his term, become prime minister of the new government that will be linked to the majority held by United Russia in the Duma? Yes, he can.

Could Putin make changes to the Constitution and other legislation to significantly increase the powers of the prime minister? Yes, but this is highly unlikely. Putin is cautious regarding changes to the Constitution and constitutional law. It’s clear that he would like to make such changes to facilitate a smooth transition of power and to avoid violating the letter — but not the spirit — of the law. As Putin says, he doesn’t like his “ears to stick out,” which is to say that on the surface, everything should be in strict conformity with the law. But Putin does not always abide by the law. Remember how after the terrorist crisis in Beslan he canceled the election of governors.

Could Putin put forward newly appointed Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov as his presidential successor? Yes.

Could he leave Zubkov in the prime minister spot and choose someone else as his successor instead? Putin could easily pick anyone he wants. Remember how the so-called political elite generously praised the wisdom and correctness of the Zubkov appointment. The bureaucrats that surround Putin have made it easier for him to elevate anyone he wants to become the next president.

Could Putin refuse to name a single successor, and instead let a few members of his “team” fight it out among themselves in a serious, though not very amusing, campaign battle? He could do this as well.

Could he choose to forego both the presidency and the prime minister post and limit himself to the relatively easy job of chairing the committee that will manage Russia’s preparation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics? That is also a possibility.

What will Putin actually do?

Nobody knows. It is possible that Putin has not yet made a final decision on whom to name as his successor. But we do know the decisions he has made so far, and this gives us some insight where he might be leaning.

First, Putin clearly intends to keep his inner circle, the political elite, the media and the entire country in the dark as long as possible regarding his plans in order to avoid becoming a lame duck president.

Second, Putin is building an intricate system of checks and balances that will be in place when the next president takes the oath of office in May 2008.

Third, it is difficult to find evidence to support the hypothesis that Putin is tired and dreams of returning to a private lifestyle when his term ends. Even if what he said Monday regarding his willingness to serve as the future prime minister proves only a diversionary maneuver, it in no way suggests that he has grown tired of holding the reins of power. On the contrary, he is basking in the strong authority that he has built for himself.

Of course, nobody knows for sure what exactly the president will do. What we have instead is a bunch of rumors, gossip and media leaks that have been carefully orchestrated. But recent events lend support to what I have heard from Kremlin insiders — that Putin is preoccupied with two issues: How to leave politics altogether and remain the most influential person in Russia, or how to return to the presidency.

Today, eight years after the question, “Who is Mr. Putin?” was first asked, we can say with confidence that he is an extremely ambitious person who thinks seriously about his future place in history. No Russian leader has ever managed to remain influential as a political figure once he has left office, nor has any leader ever returned to power after being dismissed or after leaving his post voluntarily.

Now imagine how Putin’s ego is stoked when he imagines himself chairing the Group of Eight, the world’s most prestigious political club, once again in 2012. By then, not a single one of his fellow leaders who were present at the last G8 meeting will likely still be in office. But Putin will be there, immensely enjoying his role as a senior, venerable global diplomat and all the privileges that go with this status.

No, those who predicted that Putin was headed for a well-deserved rest were far too hasty in their judgment.

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