More and more analysts are jumping on the “Putin will find a way to remain President” bandwagon. Leon Aron in today’s New York Times:
Still, after Mr. Putin’s announcement that he would not be averse to becoming the next prime minister, the prevailing guess is that after the March 2 presidential election Mr. Putin will head the Russian government under a new president.
Yet before the Bush administration and the leading contenders for the White House begin to design a Russia policy based on this, its plausibility has to be examined. In the light of what we know about Mr. Putin and the political and economic system he has forged, he is more likely to find a way to continue in office as President Putin.
To begin, Vladimir Putin has done the opposite of what he publicly said he would do with regard to some major policy issues.
And Itogi (HT, Johnson’s Russia List):
As yet, United Russia is not influential or authoritative enough to ensure policy continuity without Putin in the Kremlin. The significance of the Duma speaker in the present-day state hierarchy is clearly insufficient for a national leader, while the office of prime minister would require Putin to be very, very sure that his formal transfer of power to a temporary succesor wouldn’t last long. And it’s hard to imagine Putin in a subordinate role, with a different president in office; especially since Putin has stated that the president’s powers should not be redistributed in the government’s favor (although this would be a logical move if he planned to become prime minister). He said that this would result in two centers of power, with inevitable competition or even open power-struggles between them – for an example, see Ukraine. One way or another, Putin’s departure – if it happens -might be no more than a relatively brief reshuffle, after which he would reclaim the post of head of state. Otherwise, there’s no point in even discussing any kind of Putin Plan.
And Pavel Baev:
While there is much pose and pretence in Putin’s military build-up, there was still one point off-camera where he verbalized a bit of his real thinking. Russia, according to Putin, will continue to require “manual steering” for another 15-20 years and only then would the institutions be mature enough for “automatic control” (Vremya novostei, October 19). It comes out clearly that Putin intends to keep his hands on the steering wheel, but it is hardly possible to reconcile this intention with the expressed objections against reducing presidential authority and with the proposition that a “modern and capable” person will be elected as the next president in only a few months. Having too many hands on the control levels is always a recipe for disaster, and if these levers are attached to a divided and massively corrupt bureaucratic machine, political disaster might strike with real vengeance. Giving up on a successor and trying in haste to build an arrangement for “collective authoritarianism,” Putin looks like a man without a plan wiggling in a trap he spent eight years building.
Baev doesn’t come out and say that Putin will engineer a way to remain President, but the logical implications of his analysis are clear as day; Putin can’t afford to let go the controls of power, so . . .
In short, Putin is already weakened. That’s why he’s scrambling to strengthen his position and weaken the other clans. Every move he makes from here on out is fraught with danger. If he runs for parliament, appoints his man Zubkov as president, and then becomes the prime minister of a new parliamentary republic–basically following the playbook of Khodorkovsky’s plan to take power–then he’ll subject himself to the uncertainty of whethor or not the new president will really hand over power to Prime Minister Putin. There could be a long tug-of-war and new factions will very likely emerge. He might get some of the power, but not all of it. Jealousies, greed, ambition, and the general mess of transition all mean that Putin could find himself locked in a serious and dangerous battle, if he already isn’t in it.
His other option is the Kazakhstan Scenario. This year, Kazakhstan’s dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev passed laws allowing him to remain in office for life, quashed what little remains of the opposition, and then held elections which turned his parliament into a single-party rubber-stamp committee. He managed this all with the West’s collusion: when Nazarbayev announced legislation making him president for life this past May, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called it “a step in the right direction,” leading to outrage among Kazakhstan’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement. When the rigged elections this summer gave him a one-party parliament, the OSCE hailed it as “welcome progress.” Kazakhstan has for the past couple of years been the darling of Dick Cheney and the neocons. Even self-described Russophobe Kim Zigfeld wrote a suspiciously placed article praising Kazakhstan’s leap forward into Western democracy.
In other words, if Putin wants to be a democrat, he should change the constitution, stay in office for life, and make the United Russia party the only party in the Duma. That’s what Nazarbayev advised Putin this past summer. “Worked for me!”
I think it’s fair to say that nobody knows just how Putin will engineer his constitutional workaround, but more and more folks are coming to the realization that the realities of Russian politics make it imperative that he find some way to do so. Moreover, it is also dawning on people that Putin does not view his past public pronouncements–no matter how frequently or forcefully uttered–as constraints on his future behavior. So when trying to predict Putin’s behavior, discount his words–and evaluate his interests. When you do so, I think that you too will hop on the bandwagon.