Crisis looms as Putin plays games over succession

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There is more than one election due to take place in 2008. In the Russian Presedential, one candidate already looks unbeatable. The only trouble is he will not be able to stand……or will he?

Further moves were made at the Kremlin Palace on January 31 in the great constitutional game that will shape Russia’s political future. Facing 560 reporters from across the country, Vladimir Putin, like a Grand Master at a chessboard, continued to roll out his pawns as he slowly implements his strategy to retain control of the Russian Federation beyond his constitutional sell-by-date of 2008. In the finest chess traditions, the President has so far played it calm. However by apparently ruling out several of analysts’ favourite theories, Putin is beginning to adopt a characteristically bullish approach to the question of his succession. His confidence suggests that he and his advisors have the winning move up their sleeve, leaving Kremlinologists to ponder whether that move will in fact push Russia into diplomatic checkmate.

Despite the announcement from the Kremlin last year that Putin will step down in 2008, the prediction that he will remain is about as controversial in Moscow as the forecast of January snow. Article 81 of the Russian constitution states that no President is permitted to serve more than two terms of office in succession. That rule means that Putin must step aside in two years time. However despite this apparent lame duck status, the President enjoys overwhelming public support. Early 2006 approval ratings show 50% of Russians would vote for Putin if an election were called immediately and 86% rate Putin’s work as generally good. These figures support the depiction of the President in the Russian media as everything from a political idol to a sex symbol. Add the fact that the list of alternative candidates looks as bare as the shelves of a Soviet grocery store and it is no surprise that Russians are determined to keep the President out of retirement. At present, the only alternative is a destabilising power vacuum.

Since he made the comment in September 2005 that “he would find a place in the ranks”, the most popular solution to the succession problem amongst analysts has been that the President will move into business. Gazprom, the state controlled gas monopoly and Russia’s most important business concern, would be the obvious destination for a former President, as the company looks set to stay at the heart of the country’s foreign economic policy for at least the next 10 years.

However in the annual televised new conference on Tuesday, Putin appeared to rule out that possibility. Answering a direct question on the point, the President said “I can hardly take over a business structure; my nature and background do not make me feel like a businessman”.

The follow-up question from a different journalist about transforming Russia into a parliamentary republic, allowing him to take the reins as Prime Minister (a role he could constitutionally take over after the Presidency) led to another popular option being closed down. Putin made it clear that shifting the balance towards the Russian Parliament (the Duma) would not be in the best interests of the country “The formation of stable political parties is not yet complete. How then can one speak about parliamentary rule? It would be irresponsible”, he said.

Therefore, provided we take Putin at his word, and assuming that the former KGB officer does not shock the world and disappear quietly into the Siberian sunset, the press conference has left two plausible strategies to extend his term constitutionally -“the hard way”, and “the easy way”. Both methods are strictly speaking legitimate, but if he puts either into practice Putin risks attracting the scorn of NGOs and foreign observers alike.

Firstly, the hard way; Putin could legitimately amend the constitution. The amendment would logically focus on Article 81 itself and allow an indefinite number of successions clearing the way for Putin to democratically win the Presidency for a third time. Though it sounds straightforward, this approach would require a huge political and financial effort. Putin’s United Russia party dominates the Duma with over 300 seats, but to achieve a constitutional amendment requires a three-quarters majority in the Federation Council for which an extensive process of bargaining and/or bribing would be necessary. Once the Council has been won over, the President will then have to convince two thirds of the regional legislatures.

Putin can avoid the smooth-talking and palm-greasing of a constitutional amendment by opting for the easy way; relying on the wording of Article 81 as it stands. The provision prohibits more than two successive terms. The President could therefore step down and allow the 2008 poll to go ahead between two puppets. The winner would appoint his predecessor to the post of Prime Minister, ready to step up to the Presidency on the immediate resignation of the elected premier. This is precisely what happened in 1999-2000 when Yeltsin stepped aside to allow the then unknown Putin to move from the Duma to the Kremlin. Putin could repeat the process, and by following the newly elected President, he would not have held three successive terms.

In Tuesday’s press conference the President ruled out a switch to parliamentary democracy, but this “easy” solution does not shift the balance in favour of the Duma for more than a few weeks, which means it could be part of his strategy.
Though convenient and in essence constitutional, Putin himself would have to accept that this proposal, is against the spirit of Article 81 and the constitution. Such disregard for the sovereignty of the constitution over individual politicians is likely to provoke outrage from NGOs and more importantly western governments will view this move as a return to the bad-old-days of command and control.

Putin has come under pressure in the past few weeks for over-zealous control of the media, consistent suppression of NGOs and the use of gas as a political weapon against former Soviet republics. Such antidemocratic, clumsy actions have led to calls from some quarters for Russia’s expulsion from the G8 group of industrialised nations. An amendment to, or subversion of the constitution to enhance one man’s power would surely add weight to those calls. It could also jeopardise Russia’s imminent accession to the World Trade Organisation, not to mention damaging relations with key allies in the West.

The Ukraine gas crisis showed that Putin is not a President who listens to voices from the outside in relation to his management of affairs within the Russian sphere of influence. However, with Russia finding its feet economically and having been handed a responsible diplomatic role as mediator in the Iran crisis, riding roughshod over the constitution now would send a message of instability and untrustworthiness to foreign governments. It is 6 years since Putin came to power and in that time Russia has shown signs that it is capable of democratic, stable government. It would be a betrayal of the Russian people to throw that away as a consequence of one man’s ambition.

Putin must name a genuine successor sooner rather than later and groom him for the role in the lead up to 2008. To continue to prolong the speculation about a possible constitutional crisis in two year’s time devalues Russia’s status as a credible international power. For now, as the chess game of Putin’s succession rolls into the next phase, we in the West can only hope that he will remember to play, not only by the democratic rules, but in the spirit of the game.