Puzzling Over Putin's Remarks on Succession

First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov, left, and Dmitri Medvedev, at a parade in Moscow last month, are widely seen as presidential front-runners.
First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov, left, and Dmitri Medvedev, at a parade in Moscow last month, are widely seen as presidential front-runners. (By Misha Japaridze -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 23, 2007

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin seems to quietly delight in stoking the fevered speculation about who will succeed him when he steps down, as he has promised to do, following presidential elections in March.

Now Moscow is suddenly chattering about a new, unnamed prospect -- the loyal place-holder.

Under that scenario, which Putin recently toyed with publicly, a new leader would keep his seat warm until 2012 -- or even sooner, as some have suggested, if Russia's next president were suddenly afflicted with nervous exhaustion or some other condition that forced him -- or her -- to resign. The Russian constitution only prevents Putin from serving more than two consecutive terms.

"Theoretically it's possible," Putin said when asked at the recent Group of Eight summit in Germany if he might run in 2012. "The constitution does not forbid it."

Just before the summit, in a meeting with foreign reporters, Putin said he was open to the idea of extending the term of the president from four to five or even seven years -- a constitutional change that could also be used to trigger a new round of presidential elections after 2008.

Kremlin strategist Vladislav Surkov has taken to comparing Putin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was returned to the White House four times. And Putin has repeatedly stressed he will remain a vital player. "My sport was judo, not light athletics," he said this year. "I have no intention of running away."

The idea of a third, albeit nonconsecutive, term for Putin is not new. But for Kremlin-watchers, who are starved of hard information and therefore parse Putin's remarks with Talmudic intensity, his recent musings provided a moment for some fresh prognostication.

"The option of a 'technical president' . . . is becoming more and more plausible," wrote the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper this month. "Later he will quietly step aside, having prepared Vladimir Putin's triumphant return."

Such an outcome has its logic. The Kremlin, according to analysts here, is riven by factions who cannot agree on a successor, and the extension of Putin's rule following a short interregnum might be the only way to prevent damaging splits among his acolytes from emerging into the open. Moreover, a third term following a break from power would respect the letter of the constitution and prevent Putin from becoming another disreputable president-for-life such as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

But Putin himself is a lesson in the dangers of banking on future loyalty once power has been transferred. After Putin was elected president in 2000, the tycoon Boris Berezovsky reportedly told the new president that he was a "temporary figure" and that a permanent replacement for Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president, would be chosen in 2004.

Berezovsky was soon out in the cold. He is now in exile in London, from where he launches rhetorical broadsides at his former protege. And Russia is seeking his extradition from Britain on a number of criminal charges.

"The laws of power suggest that any new president, unless it's a clone of Putin, will bring their own people in, and that team will be very reluctant to leave after a first term," said Yevgeny Volk, coordinator of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. "Even if he chooses someone very loyal, it is hard to imagine that they will remain in a servile capacity."

For months, political analysts have been studying the appearances and statements of two men widely seen as front-runners for the top job, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev, both first deputy prime ministers and longtime associates of Putin. Ivanov has been put in charge of the diversification and strengthening of the Russian economy, and Medvedev is tasked with improving areas such as housing, education and health.

Their unannounced campaigns appear to be an effort to test their popularity with the public, but more important, to gauge the reaction of elements within the elite to their potential.

Each week brings new predictions about their viability. The fact, for instance, that Ivanov, 54, gave a wide-ranging speech and Medvedev merely sat on a panel at an international economic forum in St. Petersburg this month was grist for another round of speculation that Ivanov was the favored one. Just months ago, when Medvedev, a 41-year-old lawyer, stepped into the klieg lights with an appearance at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, his star had seemed ascendant.

The specter of a "technical" president may be an effort by Putin to prevent Ivanov and Medvedev from getting too far ahead of themselves -- at least until he is ready to bless one of them and has united his team behind his choice. Meanwhile, the uncertainty serves two related purposes -- staving off lame-duck status for Putin and keeping his potential successors in line.

"The Russian elite is very servile," Volk said. "It is very loyal to the one who is in power and wants to stick to the one in power and enjoy the privileges. But as soon as someone leaves, it automatically shifts allegiance. So it's in Putin's interest to send completely mixed signals so no one has a clear lead."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company