The Russian president knows he won't be in charge forever. And he might be looking for a successor.
Kremlin leaders tend to be obsessed with succession. They think about it. They worry about it. And they actively try to manage it. In the latter Brezhnev years, the upper echelons of the Soviet elite, mindful of their own mortality, actively sought to promote a younger cadre from which the next generation of leaders would be drawn. It was a process that ultimately landed Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin. And throughout his presidency, the aging Yeltsin toyed with a number of potential successors before -- fatefully -- settling on Putin.
The reasons for the fixation are obvious. In the absence of institutions, traditions, and a political culture to assure a smooth transition of power, Russia's rulers seek to control the process themselves.
So are Putin and his entourage thinking about life after Putin?
Political analyst Gelb Pavlovsky, the onetime Kremlin spinmeister who was instrumental in strategizing and marketing the president's initial rise to power, thinks so. "It is noticeable that Putin is considering the formation of a group from which he will be looking to choose the next president," Pavlovsky told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets recently. "The difficulty lies in the fact that he has not yet decided whether he wants to see a successor by 2018 or if he will need one in 2024. In the second case, there will, of course, be difficulties. It is hard to imagine keeping a pool of successors for 12 years. This group will inevitably be updated repeatedly."
Audition of the Heavyweights
So if Putin is, indeed, actively thinking about succession, who's likely to be on his short list? Probably not Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose political capital has been severely diminished and who seems to grow more alienated from Putin by the day. "Dmitry Medvedev is a worn-out figure whose weakness is seen by everyone," political analyst Pavel Svtatenkov wrote recently in the online Osobaya Bukva.
Medvedev's comments in January that he may seek the presidency again were widely ridiculed. He backtracked in an interview with Bloomberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, stressing that he would never run against Putin. Shortly thereafter, he became the target of a series of attacks -- most notably a slickly produced video assailing his acquiescence to NATO's air campaign against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. "Medvedev began to position himself too aggressively as Putin's successor," political analyst Aleksei Mukhin told the daily Noviye Izvestia. "Some circles deemed this premature, and they struck several very powerful blows at the prime minister's political image." Many Kremlin watchers don't even expect Medvedev to last the year as prime minister.
If and when Putin finally sacks Medvedev, whom he appoints as a replacement will be a major tell. If Medvedev is replaced with a "technical" prime minister with no political profile -- somebody like Mikhail Fradkov or Viktor Zubkov, for example -- it will be a surefire sign that Putin is probably not pondering succession yet.
But if he appoints a real heavyweight, that person will inevitably be looked at like a president-in-waiting. "By making a heavyweight prime minister, you know that you are giving someone not just power but the power to make more power for themselves," NYU professor Mark Galeotti, author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows, said on the latest "Power Vertical" podcast. "You are making an active move...one that you know that not only will everyone else interpret as having succession implications, but one that will make the heavyweight even heavier."
Two such heavyweights have been getting a fair bit of attention lately in the Russian media: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Since taking over as Moscow mayor following the sacking of Yury Luzhkov in September 2010, Sobyanin has enjoyed high popularity in the capital and good relations with the Kremlin. Putin reportedly sees him as loyal, but he has also seemed to go out of his way not to alienate the opposition. "I think Putin is counting on him and has included him in his own plans for the future," Pavlovsky said. "I think that Sobyanin is on Putin's personal short list today. Medvedev is not."
Shoigu's star has also been rising dramatically. For more than a decade as emergencies minister, he was Russia's action man, appearing at nearly every disaster, either natural or manmade. And since taking over the scandal-plagued Defense Ministry in December, he has become, by far, the most popular minister in the government. "Sooner or later, the Kremlin will be faced with a dilemma: whether to use Shoygu's reputation or remove him from the scene," Svtatenkov writes.
Likewise, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a political heavyweight who remains close to Putin despite his flirtations with the opposition, has been touted as a replacement for Medvedev.
A Lame Duck?
Of course, today's potential successor could be tomorrow's footnote. Just ask Sergei Sakhrai, Vladimir Shumeiko, or Boris Nemtsov, all of whom were at one time or another touted as successors to Yeltsin. And all the succession chatter, of course, may not be coming because Putin himself thinks it's time to consider the issue but rather because others in the ruling elite do. "It is hard to think of Putin yet actively thinking: 'It's time I went and who is going to be my chosen heir?'" Galeotti noted on last week's podcast. "It's actually that others within the deep state are either beginning the auditions or allowing conversations about succession to percolate as a way of signaling to Putin that he really ought to be thinking in these terms -- and if he doesn't, then others will begin thinking about it for him."
If this is, indeed, the case, it means that some in the elite are already looking at Putin as a lame duck. Which would explain much of the turbulence and public intrigue that has gripped the political class recently. "This is a sign of people realizing that Putin is no longer Putin. He's lost his touch," Galeotti said. "And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more people talk about a succession, the weaker Putin becomes."
But there is one funny thing about managed successions in Russia: They often don't turn out how their orchestrators intend. The Brezhnev elites' efforts to groom a young cadre of leaders led to the rise of two men -- Gorbachev and Yeltsin -- who would be instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union. And Yeltsin's inner circle, the so-called "Family," settled on Putin because they believed he would protect their interests after their patron left the Kremlin. Just ask Boris Berezovsky how that worked out.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.