“It was too early to put Putin in. Someone else had to fill the gap. I needed someone to serve as decoy.” – From Boris Yeltsin’s memoir “Midnight Diaries” (page 284) on the appointment of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister. Putin was Yeltsin’s favored successor as early as March 1999, but in order to protect him from the attacks of his opponents, Yeltsin appointed Sergei Stepashin to fill in as PM for the dismissed Primakov.
There’s nothing quite like a good September political surprise from the Kremlin (though it’s tough to top Yeltsin’s move on the Duma 14 years ago). Few people, perhaps not even the new premier Viktor Zubkov himself, could say they were expecting yesterday’s events. So what does this all mean? Does the dismissal (technically a “resignation”) of Mikhail Fradkov and the entire cabinet signal the true beginning of the election season? Has anything been revealed in regards to Putin’s choice of a successor? Does the rapid appointment of the relatively unknown Zubkov show confidence and stability? In my opinion, no, no, and no. First and foremost, as I have commented earlier on this blog, the very execution of Fradkov’s “immaculate resignation” was done in such a way as to invite immediate speculation that we were not getting the full story. Fradkov reasoned that he should resign in order to give the president “full freedom in…decisions on the shape and organisation of the power structure in connection with the upcoming political events.” Putin vaguely referred to “mistakes and glitches” as though Fradkov had failed to fulfill his duties. What these “mistakes” exactly were, no one seems to know – it only takes a pedestrian comparison with the resignation of the embattled Japanese PM Shinzo Abe on the same day to immediately grasp the kind of political opacity we are going to be dealing with through the succession period. In other words, given the paucity of good information, I don’t think that anybody can really be sure of anything of this point, yet everybody is talking. Putin’s Zubkov shuffle has been a feast of fodder for the pundits, and theories have flourished. Unlike many commentators out there, I’ll do my best to refrain from making broad sweeping statements with regard to the true political meaning of this shuffle, and just share a few ideas that occur to me. The case for Zubkov being a placeholder? The succession question has been debated vigorously at great length in many different forums, and it seems that everybody has their favorite horse – Viktor Zubkov is likely not one of them. With so little reliable information to draw upon, most analysts point back to the examples of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin rising out of obscurity, so there is certainly credibility to the dark horse theory – especially a dark horse that certain elements believe will protect them from investigations down the road. Furthermore, it doesn’t add up that we have one puppet replacing another puppet – Fradkov was un-influential, obedient, and pliable (though some theories had already eliminated him from the succession race simply for being bald). Zubkov, by all indications, is largely similar in this respect, even if Putin is reputed to have a lot of respect for him. (It should be noted that Zubkov is not as much of a total unknown entity that many are claiming he is – although he kept a low profile, his record of performance is respected among some groups.) This does not appear to be similar to the removals of Primakov or Kasyanov, who were both dismissed as their independent political support grew. I also think it is far too early for Putin to tip his hand. If he learned anything from his rise up through the ranks of power, he would understand that Russian political leaders wait until the last minute possible to reveal their preferred successors, and promote decoys to attract the attacks of their opponents. However, some will argue that Putin enjoys a level of popularity that may allow him more maneuverability than his predecessors. Writing in the Economist, Edward Lucas seems to support the theory that the loyal Zubkov could make for a nice proxy president while Putin continues to govern as the head of Russia’s Security Council (I am only assuming Lucas wrote this article because he is fond of using the phrase “nyet faktov, tolko versii” – no facts, all theories). However I think there is far more turbulence inside the Kremlin than most are able to see, making this theory unlikely. The resignation of Fradkov largely appears to have been requested by one of the various competing blocs within the Kremlin. But instead of appointing a clear silovik prime minister (most agree that Zubkov is unlikely to have ever worked for the KGB), it seems possible that this selection may signal the growing influence of a new group – a group not necessarily tied the former ruling core linked to the FSB (although some think Zubkov is a plant). There have been other indications of a quiet sea change happening inside the Kremlin, including Yulia Latynina’s argument that Rosneft’s Igor Sechin is facing tough opponents (who may have blocked him from acquiring Russneft assets) as well as the recent shake up at the Prosecutor General’s office. All things considered, optimists may have some grounds to think that Zubkov’s appointment can be welcomed with some hope for the moment. Perhaps Zubkov will be able to carve out some autonomy from the power struggles that will begin playing out with increasing intensity, and bring some fresh thinking to a government that currently finds itself in crisis in its domestic freedoms and international relations. At the very least, on the surface, he has the resume of a pro-business corruption fighter, and he is believed to marginally more free from the mentality of paranoia and suspicion that has dominated siloviki policy. Clearly we must scrutinize his participation in the politically motivated campaigns led by the tax and anti-money laundering agencies at the behest of the government. However, there are precedents of the dark horse establishing an independent support base. Indeed, through his prior role as anti-money laundering czar, one must assume that Zubkov is by no stretch a weak figure. He surely has detailed knowledge of sensitive information about virtually all of the leading Russian officials who have established political power bases upon riches and influence attained via their stewardship of state-controlled energy companies. Zubkov may be a more powerful arbiter of the Kremlin’s competing clans than many are assuming him capable of. All in all, it is far too early and there is not enough information to make reliable predictions at this point – but what seems clear to me is that the fighting between the Kremlin’s competing groups is getting more and more intense, and Putin’s status as a hostage to these disputes makes for a powerful reminder of the most critical weaknesses of Russia’s model of sovereign democracy and the vertical of power. Attempts to conceal the considerable instability in the halls of power may have had some success to date, but the potential for the situation to spiral out of anyone’s control, including Putin’s, remains high.