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Russia: Does Surprise PM Show Putin's Strength, Or Weakness?

  • Brian Whitmore

Is new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov Putin's annoited successor, or yet another transitional figure? (ITAR-TASS) September 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin's appointment of the obscure Viktor Zubkov confounded the Moscow political elite. Some analysts say Putin is losing his touch and making irrational decisions as the end of his term approaches. Others say he is still the master of Russia's political universe. Is Zubkov's appointment a sign of Putin's strength, or weakness?

Everything appeared to be proceeding according to plan. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov obediently resigned on schedule. Kremlin-connected "political analysts" assured the media that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was about to be appointed prime minister -- and would finally win his long-coveted blessing as Putin's chosen heir.

So when Putin instead nominated an obscure bureaucrat named Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, Kremlin watchers in Moscow and elsewhere were understandably confounded. Viktor who? What is Putin doing? Has the plan changed?

Sign Of Putin's Insecurity?

Since he burst onto the political scene Putin has fostered an image of a hyper-competent, sober, and even-keeled man who is in control -- of himself, his government, and the country he governs.

But some analysts, like longtime Russia observer Paul Quinn-Judge, said Putin's move on September 12 was a sign that the leader might be losing his touch.

"The message that's coming out from all this is that there is a guy who is saying: 'Whoops, maybe not,'" Quinn Judge says. "This is not the image that Putin has very carefully fostered, and had fostered for him, of the man who speaks in mechanically accurate Russian sentences, who can reel off whole paragraphs of statistics. Suddenly it looks like we've got a guy who is saying, 'Oh, no, OK, let's try plan C, point four, or something like this.'"
"The message that's coming out from all this is that there is a guy who is saying: 'Whoops, maybe not.'" -- Quinn-Judge


Quinn-Judge adds that as the reality of Putin actually turning the keys of the Kremlin over to somebody else draws nearer, Russia's man of steel is losing his nerve and making irrational decisions. "Everything probably seemed rather elegant a couple years ago," he says. "We're getting closer and closer to it, and I think he's wondering whether he can trust anybody else in this world except himself."

...Or His Continued Mastery?


Some Russia watchers say Zubkov's appointment was a sign that Putin's inner circle, which makes important decisions by consensus, was deadlocked on who should be the next president. Quinn-Judge adds that as this deadlock continues, and Putin is unable to resolve it, then he could easily lose control of the situation.

Putin "is a very convenient leader for the country for several key factions in the country at this moment," Quinn-Judge says. "And people have benefited immensely by this rule. But it may well be that these people feel that their positions can be better protected in the future by someone else."

But speaking to journalists in the Belgorod Oblast today, Putin seemed as confident as ever. Putin presented the decision as the first step in restructuring Russia's government prior to the upcoming election season.

"In my opinion, it is better to make certain cadre decisions already now and to take steps to modernize the very system of governance -- not just to prevent interruptions that may be caused by big permutations and system transformations, but rather to set a vector for the development of the executive branch in the period following the December 2007 and March 2008 elections," Putin said.
"The reasons for this are some intrigue and scenarios that nobody on
the outside of the system knows. ...everything is proceeding according to schedule and according
to the plan that was thought up long ago. -- Krishtanovskaya


Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Institute for the Study of Elites at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says rather than showing weaknesses in the surprise decision, Putin again demonstrated his complete mastery of the Russian political system.

"This was a well thought-out decision," Kryshtanovskaya says. "The reasons for this are some intrigue and scenarios that nobody on the outside of the system knows. Only a very small circle of people knows. But everything is proceeding according to schedule and according to the plan that was thought up long ago. Therefore, we need to pay a lot of attention to Zubkov, because he could be Putin's successor."

Yet Another Transition Figure

Kryshtanovskaya says Zubkov's nomination as prime minister was a consensus decision made collectively by what she refers to as the "Putin Politburo."

"There is a small circle of people, his close associates or politburo, which make such strategic decisions by consensus," she says. "This decision about Zubkov is most likely consensual. We can't say there was betrayal or that one clan won over another. For this small group who are in the Putin Politburo, the best decision for a successor is that such a person not be a part of that politburo. If it was one of them, then there would have been tension and competition. This is a compromise."

Khryshtanovskaya adds that the move signifies that the Kremlin elite is seriously considering the so-called "technical president" scenario whereby a weak president would serve one term, allowing Putin to return to power in four years' time.

"The question is who would agree to be president for only four years? Who would agree to leave the presidency willingly? And who will the population be willing to vote for? Clearly such a person cannot be very young and energetic," Kryshtanovskaya says. "It must be an older politician."

Zubkov, who turns 66 on September 15, fits the bill. He is relatively old, has no discernable political ambitions, and has known Putin well since their days in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s.

Khryshtanovskaya says a second possibility is that Zubkov is being tasked with overhauling the government and then turning it over to the person who will be Putin's successor.
What The Experts Say

"I think what [Putin's] doing is he's clearing out the government of all potentially independent minded ministers and putting in place a guy who's extremely loyal to him and who also has a lot of dirt on everyone else." -- Michael McFaul of Washington's Carnegie Endowment and Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"It is completely possible that this is a signal that all that we thought was completely certain in terms of how things will develop is mistaken. It is a signal that there is no certainty about how things will develop in Russia." -- Maria Matskevich of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology.

"We are probably looking at a government that will be transitional and which will be handed over to a successor who will be named later." -- Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"The fact that Putin comes up with something unexpected is not necessarily a sign of great cunning and political acumen. It could well be a sign that the man is as anxious and indecisive and perhaps even panicky as some analysts -- myself included -- would suspect." -- Paul Quinn-Judge, a Russia analyst and former Moscow correspondent for "Time" magazine.

"Who will be his successor? That's for Putin to decide. It could be [First Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Ivanov, it could be [First Deputy Prime Minister] Dmitry Medvedev, it could even be the head of Russia's railways [Vladimir] Yakunin. But I think that whoever it is, this is a signal that the president is making his choice." -- Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation.

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