"I personally would be reluctant to conclude that [Putin's] motives are bad," James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" in September 2004. "I think Russia is a pretty difficult place to run, and so I wouldn't come to that conclusion too quickly."
Putin's achievements have been largely bolstered by his staggeringly high personal popularity ratings -- especially in contrast to those of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- and a generally favorable global political and economic environment for Russia.
Unrest In The North Caucasus
The greatest challenge Putin has faced in his seven years at the helm has been controlling the situation in the North Caucasus and ending the vicious wave of terrorist attacks that swept through Russia in the decade ending in September 2004. Putin has been largely successful in this, as Russia has not seen a major terrorist incident since the Beslan school siege. Instead, Russian confidence in the future has been bolstered by such events as the July 2006 death of Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev.
Now, however, Russia enters a period fraught with danger for any personality-based political system -- elections and the transfer of power. Inasmuch as the Federal Assembly has been all but entirely subordinated to the Kremlin and is dominated by the Kremlin-controlled Unified Russia and A Just Russia parties, the December 2007 legislative elections are likely to pass smoothly. However, the race in the spring of 2008 to become Putin's successor is another matter entirely.
At present, the front-runners in the race are the two first deputy prime ministers, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Medvedev -- who chairs the massive state-controlled gas giant Gazprom and who oversees the social portfolio in the government -- has a solid base from which to campaign, but is widely seen as handicapped by a notable lack of charisma. Ivanov, who definitely comes off more forcefully on television and who has a military background that lends him a tougher image, lacks the firm political and economic backing that Medvedev enjoys.
In recent months, Russian political analysts have agonized over the fact that the so-called siloviki -- the section of the political elite that is bound by ties to the intelligence and security structures and is widely believed to be centered around Putin's deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin -- does not back either Medvedev or Ivanov. Increasingly, they are speculating the siloviki could play the role of spoiler as Putin attempts a managed power transition -- a role they fear could easily undermine the surprisingly fragile "vertical of power" that Putin has built so assiduously in the past few years.
The siloviki are thought to be centered around Igor Sechin (left) (TASS)
Analyst Aleksandr Ryklin wrote on the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website in December 2006 that the stress on the political structure could end in "the collapse of the entire system of power." Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Andrei Ryabov wrote in "Novaya gazeta" the following month that "the vertical of power is gradually on its way out under the influence of the group interests of ruling-class factions that are thinking primarily about their own survival after 2008."
It would not be hard to argue that the weakening of the vertical of power or even the collapse of the "entire system" created by Putin would not be a bad thing -- if not for the wild card of the siloviki, since the stability ushered in by Putin is a decided liability for their political fortunes. Although the allegations have never been conclusively demonstrated, it should not be forgotten that many observers have argued that the siloviki engineered their rise to prominence by provoking or exploiting violence in the North Caucasus in 1999 and -- perhaps -- by arranging a series of bombings in Russian apartment buildings that killed hundreds and paralyzed the country with terror.
Observers including Vitaly Leibin, Ivan Yartsev, and Natalya Royeva have all pointed to the recent high-profile murders of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and former Federal Security Service security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko as signs of the direction developments in Russia could take if a powerful section of the elite begins to see its political advantage in increased fear and instability.
Since Sechin and the siloviki do not seem to have placed their support behind any possible successor, speculation is mounting that their real goal is to compel Putin to accept a third term and thereby extend the status quo. An editorial in "Kommersant-Vlast" in January argued bluntly that Sechin's group could force Putin to remain in office by destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus. Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, writing on kreml.org in January, argued the siloviki could be plotting a policy of "managed destabilization."
However, the institutional weakness of the Russian political system -- which remains heavily centered on Putin's personal popularity -- and the superficial nature of the imposed stability that has emerged in the North Caucasus in the last two years means that "managed" destabilization could quickly become unmanageable. And if it does, Russia and many in the international arena could find themselves relieved if Putin does agree to stay on for a few more years.