Kremlin Musical Chairs
Former KGB Head Vladimir Putin Knows how to Manipulate the System; to Leave Office would be a Path to Personal Exile
It’s that time again – Russia’s pre-election season when prime ministers are changed as in a game of musical chairs. The last one seated, it is supposed, will become Russia’s next president.
As the end of his rule approached, Boris Yeltsin went through at least a half-dozen prime ministers, looking for the one who would ensure the security not only of Russia’s new democracy and market economy, but also of his "family" and the wealth that it had accumulated during his rule. The last man seated then was, of course, Vladimir Putin.
Now it is Putin’s turn to call the tune, dismissing Mikhail Fradkov and dissolving the government that had served him throughout his second term in order to prepare for the parliamentary elections looming in December and the presidential ballot in March 2008. In 1999, Yeltsin picked Putin, who was then the little-known head of the FSB (formerly the KGB). Putin chose to elevate the equally mysterious Victor Zubkov, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (also known as the "finance espionage" agency).
Despite that similarity, the reasoning behind these choices appears to be somewhat different. Yeltsin’s choice of Putin – encouraged, ironically, by Boris Berezovsky, the prominent Russian oligarch and Yeltsin advisor who is now exiled in London as Putin’s mortal enemy – was based on his belief that the quiet apparatchik, even if a former KGB spy, was a democrat at heart. After all, Putin had been a protegé of Anatoly Sobchak, the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg as communism collapsed.
A security services insider, Putin was seen as well placed to protect Yeltsin and his oligarchic allies. Indeed, Berezovsky intended to continue ruling the country from behind the scenes, first as Yeltsin’s health failed in the final months of his presidency, and then by controlling the successor he had helped to choose.
In Russia, however, the KGB is famous for turning the tables in any struggle with the Kremlin apparat. So no one but Yeltsin and Berezovsky was surprised when Putin, their supposed marionette, began pulling the strings. And pull them he did, turning Berezovsky into an international villain, exiling former media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, jailing the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and eventually imposing a new authoritarian regime behind the façade of Yeltsin’s democratic institutions.
But Putin’s own game of prime ministerial "musical chairs" does not reflect a desire to secure for himself a quiet position behind the scenes while someone else rules, for he knows all too well that the path from the Kremlin leads only to inner exile and the grave. Stalin replaced the dying Lenin, Khrushchev denounced Stalin, Brezhnev banished Khrushchev to his dacha, and Gorbachev buried Chernenko.
Only Yeltsin treated his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a decent, democratic manner, leaving him a private life that could also be lived in public. Putin, of course, did not accost Yeltsin, but he didn’t have to. He simply ignored him while reversing his achievements in building a free Russia.
Before Zubkov’s nomination, reports swirled that the next prime minister would become Putin’s presidential successor, with Sergei Ivanov, a current deputy prime minister, dubbed the most likely candidate. But Ivanov, who is also perceived as "strong," would provide unwelcome competition to Putin, who, after all, remains president. Had he anointed Ivanov now, Putin’s power would already begin seeping away.
The outgoing Fradkov, surprisingly, put the matter best when he explained why he had resigned: with elections approaching, Putin needed a free hand. So Zubkov’s nomination allows Putin to continue to keep his cards – and thus ultimate power in Russia – close to his chest.
Of course, Zubkov will continue Fradkov’s "Yes, whatever you say Mr. President" management style. Moreover, his former position as head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service will allow him to draw on a wealth of information to keep tabs on all possible enemies and competitors, perhaps turning them into new model Berezovsky’s, Gusinsky’s and Khodorkovsky’s, if necessary.
The only question now is whether Zubkov, or his successor, will eventually succeed in turning Czar Vladimir into the same sort of non-person that Putin’s rivals have become.
Nina Khrushcheva, author of the forthcoming Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, teaches international affairs at The New School in New York and was a visiting fellow this fall at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.