Streetwise Professor

October 12, 2007

I’m Still Betting Putin Will Remain President

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:33 am

Putin’s recent announcement about his intention to become prime minister has touched off a good deal of speculation that he will retain his existing dominance over Russian politics but merely change the chair in which he sits. Color me skeptical.

The presidentialism of the Russian political system, established under Yeltsin and solidified under Putin, places all the formal levers of power in the hands of the president. In this system, the prime minister is combination sock puppet and scapegoat–there to dutifully echo the President, and to take the blame when things go wrong. Today, the President controls the two most important sources of power in Russia–the special services and the state media. Although Putin has no doubt placed cronies throughout both, and throughout the other administrative sources of power in Russia, the loyalty of these people is inherently suspect. Particularly in a system like Russia’s, what loyalty there is attaches to the person in power who can reward and punish; transfer those powers from one person to another, and the loyalty transfers with it. In Russia, it is the president that wields these powers, and Putin’s current personal popularity will not change this fact.

Perhaps Putin is so taken by his current popular standing that he believes that the power he wields will adhere to his person, regardless of the office he holds. I doubt this. I think that he knows that he must remain President, and that if he does not, his successor will neuter him–or worse.

Hence, I am putting my money on some scenario likethis one laid out in Eurasia Daily Monitor in an article by Charles Gunn. That is, Putin will utilize some sort of political conjuring trick to adhere to the letter of the constitution, but remain as president for years to come.

Which brings us to another curious development–the public revelation of a “clan war” between rival security services, the FSB and the Russian narcotics police, Gosnarkokontrol. The rivalries between factions within the Kremlin have been widely rumored, but have remained largely below the surface, especially to Western Eyes (apologies to Joseph Conrad.) The fact of the conflict is not surprising–after all, turf wars among mobsters are to be expected. The publicity is something of a surprise . . . but maybe not, when one considers it in the context of succession.

Internecine warfare among Kremlin clans could provide a reason, a pretext, and maybe even part of a plan, for Putin to remain in power. Even if Putin had nothing to do with fomenting, or even publicizing, the conflict, it should make him and others around him acutely aware of the chaos that could await if he is unable to maintain an iron grip upon leaving the Presidency. A weak successor, although attractive to Putin from some perspectives, would be less able to stamp out such infighting, which could quickly spin out of control, thereby endangering the power, the fortunes–and the lives–of the siloviki, Putin included. This is good reason–and at least a good pretext–for Putin to engage in some maneuver to retain power. Moreover, such a move would attract widespread support from many of the siloviki fearing for their lives, fortunes and (choke) sacred honor.

Perhaps Putin had nothing to do with the outbreak of hostilities between FSB and Gosnarkokontrol, and will simply find this a compelling reason to do what is necessary to retain Presidential powers. Perhaps he had nothing to do with the hostilities, but opportunistically encouraged their rather shocking airing in order to build a case, a pretext, for retaining these powers. Or perhaps he actually fomented this incident as a Machiavellian maneuver. I discount, though not completely, this last alternative, but believe that Putin will use this incident and its publicity as part of his campaign to retain power.

A riddle, a mystery, an enigma, indeed.

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