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Word on the Street in Moscow

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Photo: AFP

My well-informed contacts in Moscow have reported to me that a palpable sense of panic is sweeping many government ministries in Russia these days. It seems clear that the master plan for President Putin’s succession remains a very tightly-held secret. Prime Minister Zubkov’s theatrical performance last week, tearing strips off officials for not fulfilling various responsibilities, has caused officials high and low to fear for their jobs – and in many cases, their ill-gotten gains. The anti-corruption talk of the new Prime Minister is becoming hard to understand in the context of what everyone knows to be the most pervasively corrupt Kremlin in history. The cues and codes are all off, and officials are having a hard time reading what it is exactly that they can or should do. Certain kinds of corruption seem to be alright, whereas others can trigger serious consequences. No one wants to vex the incoming leadership, so many officials have decided that inaction is safest. So despite certain preordained laws and decrees being pushed vigorously through in advance of the upcoming elections, paralysis is spreading throughout the government. What does this mean for foreigners? It will be increasingly difficult for everyone outside Russia – from entrepreneurs to diplomats to foreign government agencies to NGOs – to get anything accomplished if it depends upon high-level approval or support. Looks like its time to dig in and wait, or devise back-up plans. As for the outcome of the succession process, there is an almost universal consensus that, ultimately, the succession will not really matter. President Putin’s clique will remain firmly in control. But when pushed as to the personalities in the running, about 25% say the next president might be Viktor Zubkov, about 25% say the next president will be Sergei Ivanov, about 25% say the next president will be someone else and the remaining 25% say the next president will be Vladimir Putin, again. Meanwhile, a couple of well-placed people said that Dmitry Medvedev might be filling the position of Gazprom CEO, though they could not explain what would be happening with the current CEO, Alexei Miller. Then again, a leading Kremlinologist would see Medvedev in the Prime Minister’s chair, shielded and bolstered by a Putin-clique-friendly cabinet – and with Sergei Ivanov as President. The mystery continues.