What you need to know about Putin’s power play

Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images Big changes are afoot in Russia, a country intent on reclaiming its place on the world stage. Passport asked Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center (Carnegie is FP‘s parent organization) and the author of Getting Russia Right, to weigh in on what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cabinet ...

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599421_070912_russia_05.jpg

Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

Big changes are afoot in Russia, a country intent on reclaiming its place on the world stage. Passport asked Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center (Carnegie is FP's parent organization) and the author of Getting Russia Right, to weigh in on what Russian President Vladimir Putin's cabinet reshuffle means for Russia, for the presidential succession battle, and for the world. Below are his very interesting comments, sent via e-mail:

While Mikhail Fradkov’s appointment as Russian prime minister in March 2004 came as a bolt from the blue, his resignation today had been widely expected, almost to the day. This week has just seen the start of the parliamentary election campaign. The Duma election, due December 2, in turn, is stage one of the transfer of power in Russia to be completed in the presidential election set for March 2, 2008. Fradkov is an unlikely successor to Putin, but the position he had occupied until today is an important platform for someone who can be. After Fradkov’s resignation, the guessing game has intensified. Traditionally, most observers looked at the choice of the new prime minister as the announcement of Russia’s “president-select.”

Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

Big changes are afoot in Russia, a country intent on reclaiming its place on the world stage. Passport asked Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center (Carnegie is FP‘s parent organization) and the author of Getting Russia Right, to weigh in on what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cabinet reshuffle means for Russia, for the presidential succession battle, and for the world. Below are his very interesting comments, sent via e-mail:

While Mikhail Fradkov’s appointment as Russian prime minister in March 2004 came as a bolt from the blue, his resignation today had been widely expected, almost to the day. This week has just seen the start of the parliamentary election campaign. The Duma election, due December 2, in turn, is stage one of the transfer of power in Russia to be completed in the presidential election set for March 2, 2008. Fradkov is an unlikely successor to Putin, but the position he had occupied until today is an important platform for someone who can be. After Fradkov’s resignation, the guessing game has intensified. Traditionally, most observers looked at the choice of the new prime minister as the announcement of Russia’s “president-select.”

This time may be different. Putin’s choice of Fradkov’s successor is as surprising as Fradkov’s choice was three years ago. Valentin Zubkov, 66, the present head of the Financial Monitoring Service, belongs to the narrow circle of Putin’s colleagues in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, but otherwise is virtually unknown in Russia. One interesting thing that commentators have noted is that he is the father-in-law of Anatoly Serdyukov, the recently appointed minister of defense and another potential successor to Putin. The name-guessing game is not over; it’s only starting in earnest. The current front-runner Sergei Ivanov, the runner-up Dmitri Medvedev, the unofficial “third candidate” Vladimir Yakunin, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, and a number of even darker horses are still in play; only Fradkov, a long-shot hopeful, has dropped out for sure.

While Putin will probably beat any analyst at that game, the main features of the post-Putin regime are becoming slightly clearer. There will be a rotation of personalities at the top, but the positions of power will remain in the hands of a small group of people closely associated with the outgoing president. It is also clear that Putin will continue to exercise enormous influence after the formal handover of the presidency. This, however, will mean a de facto change of the Russian Constitution, which invests all power and authority in the reigning head of state. What is more difficult to assess is: Will this arrangement hold? If so, how long?

Russia’s political regime can be described as authoritarianism with the consent of the governed. Elections are important as the sole source of legitimacy for the political regime, but they turn into an institutionalized crisis every time the incumbent has to leave office. The top leader’s personal popularity is key to the system’s overall stability and in particular for managing succession. Putin’s is such that he can be sure that his choice is supported by the electorate. He can transfer power; he cannot, however, transfer popularity. In the absence of political institutions other than the presidency, the system’s risk level remains too high for comfort.

Whatever the personnel or structural changes in the Russian system of government, Russia’s foreign and security policy is likely to be shaped by the approach developed during Putin’s last three years. To wit: A great power seeking to enhance its international weight by means of stressing its comparative advantages (energy, arms, strategic military power); a ruthless competitor that believes cooperation is the product of successful competition; a lonely figure on the world scene that keeps a safe distance from the other major players in order to escape both entangling alliances and fatal attractions. The message to the West, specifically, remains: Accept us as we are; treat as equals, and let’s do business when and where our interests meet.

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