By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 9, 2007
MOSCOW -- On Friday, parts of the Russian media speculated that Vladimir Putin would become the first president of a new Russia-Belarus union state.
The evidence: Putin will meet this week with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and a long-discussed but never realized merger of the two countries could be part of the conversation.
"Speculative fantasies," the Kremlin snapped.
Musing on the plans of the Russian president is Moscow's longest-running and most excruciating parlor game. Long before Friday's offering, Putin's post-presidential incarnation has been linked to just about every major position in Russian political life -- not to mention chairmanship of energy giant Gazprom and presidency of the International Olympic Committee.
But some of the political astrology is about to abate, because this month the studiously coy Putin must begin to lay his cards on the table. The schedule for the March 2 presidential election requires that candidates nominating themselves must declare by Dec. 18 and that candidates nominated by a registered political party must be announced by Dec. 23.
Putin's endorsement this month -- under the constitution, he cannot seek a third consecutive term -- will reveal his intentions for his own future, but it will still not fully divulge his next move. The president has put several scenarios into play, some of which could unfold even after a successor is elected, according to analysts.
Indeed, uncertainty has become one of the president's key political levers.
Putin's ultimate goal, according to analysts, is not only to ensure the continuity of his policies but also to pick a successor who will maintain peace among the increasingly nervous Kremlin factions that surround him. That would allow a calm transfer of power or an uneventful interregnum until Putin returned, as many here believe he will.
Last Sunday's elections, which the United Russia party swept with a large turnout, "were extremely important for him, to control the people in the Kremlin who have started quarreling," Mark Urnov, head of the Expertise Foundation, a Moscow research institute that provides political analysis, said in an interview. "His choice will determine the structure of power and relations within the Kremlin, where there is no consensus on the future."
By demonstrating his popular support, Putin avoids a lame-duck tag and can use his ongoing clout to squash emerging internecine battles, analysts said.
Two recent criminal cases raise concerns that Putin's departure could unleash destabilizing infighting among the security services that dominate the elite.
One of the cases -- which began with the October arrest of Gen. Alexander Bulbov of the Federal Narcotics Control Center by agents of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB -- exposed rivalries fueled by business interests.
"A 'war of all on all' will result in a complete disintegration of the corporation," Viktor Cherkesov, Bulbov's boss, wrote in an extraordinary letter to the newspaper Kommersant. "The whole social construction will crumble and collapse."
The letter was widely read here as an attack on a Kremlin clan that includes Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB, and Igor Sechin, one of Putin's closest advisers and chairman of the powerful Rosneft oil company.
A new Investigative Committee is leading the case against Bulbov. Last month, the same agency opened the second criminal case, arresting Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak on corruption charges. Storchak, who oversaw Russia's foreign debt negotiations, is accused of attempting to embezzle $43.5 million; $1 million was allegedly found in his apartment when investigators raided it. He is currently in an FSB cell.
These opaque faction fights have largely been held in check by Putin, whom analysts here often describe as the chairman of the board of Kremlin Inc.
Responding to Cherkesov's letter, the president delivered a scolding, saying that when someone claims there is a "war among the security services," he "should, first of all, be spotless." But the next day, he appointed Cherkesov as head of a new committee to fight illegal drugs. He also visited FSB headquarters in the wake of the Bulbov arrest in what appeared to be a round of shuttle diplomacy.
"Maybe two years ago, Putin genuinely wanted to leave, but now he can't go," Sergei Dorenko, who hosts a show on the independent Echo Moskvy radio station, said in an interview. "It could all unravel."
Putin has insisted repeatedly that he will respect the constitution, which bars him from seeking a third consecutive term. But he also said he intends to maintain what he calls "moral authority" in Russia.
"Definitely his role will be very important, and definitely his very deep expertise and his very rich experience and his political talent will be in high demand," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, speaking to reporters after last Sunday's parliamentary election. And, Peskov said, Putin will "not undermine the capacities of the next president of the Russian Federation."
But what mechanism Putin will choose to maintain his influence is unclear.
At least two names remain in the picture as the next president: Viktor Zubkov, the current prime minister, and Sergei Ivanov, a first deputy prime minister and former defense minister.
But Putin, as he has shown time and again, is capable of a last-minute surprise.
If Zubkov, 66, who was little known until his appointment as prime minister this year, is chosen, it will immediately fuel speculation that Putin plans to reclaim the presidency when Zubkov leaves it. By some theories, Zubkov could oversee some of the tough reforms that Putin has avoided and step aside in 2012, when the next election is scheduled. Or he could resign partway through his term and allow Putin to return while respecting constitutional norms. (The document does not bar a nonconsecutive third term.)
"Zubkov will be seen as a weak or temporary figure, and if he is chosen, Putin's return becomes viable," Urnov said.
In the meantime, a reanimated parliament controlled by Putin could act as a check on any temporary figure who becomes too comfortable in the Kremlin presidential office. Confounding Kremlin-watchers, Putin has flirted with becoming prime minister himself. Some allies have suggested that in such a scenario, the presidency could be weakened in favor of a strong parliament.
Ivanov and another occasionally mentioned name, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, are forceful personalities who would be unlikely to agree to just keep Putin's seat in the Kremlin warm for him. But either would be relatively weak upon entering office because of Putin's shadow and the uncertain loyalty of parts of the Kremlin.
Still other observers say Putin is genuinely departing and is burnishing his status as a powerful father figure, backed by a parliamentary majority, to protect his successor, who would, in turn, protect him.
"Supreme power has been a terrible burden for Putin, and I'm quite sure he will step down," Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute, a research organization, said in an interview.