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The Putin Show And The Kremlin Shuffle

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks to journalists after a televised questions and answers session in Moscow on December 15.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks to journalists after a televised questions and answers session in Moscow on December 15.

The great post-election shuffle continues. Where it will end nobody knows.

Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin resigned today to take a seat in the State Duma, where he is widely expected to be elected speaker. Naryshkin will likely replace outgoing speaker Boris Gryzlov, who announced on Wednesday that he will not be returning to the lower house. (Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov has also been mentioned as a possible successor to Gryzlov.)

Stepping in to replace Naryshkin -- at least temporarily -- will be Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's deputy chief of staff, grey cardinal, and the regime's unofficial ideologist. The promotion will put Surkov in an unusual spot. He has served in the Kremlin of every post-Soviet president, albeit he always exerted his considerable influence in the shadows as a deputy chief of staff whose actual influence exceeded his official title. Now he's coming into the light, sort of.

Other than that, it's unclear what this Kremlin/Duma re-shuffle is supposed to accomplish.

After United Russia's disappointing showing in the disputed December 4 elections, Gryzlov -- the highest ranking party official after Vladimir Putin -- probably had to fall on his sword. And the loyal and competent Naryshkin is a logical replacement.

But what we essentially are seeing here is a game of musical chairs among Putin loyalists, and this actually illustrates the regime's dilemma perfectly. They clearly prefer to continue on with the status quo, which an increasingly restive society considers unacceptable.

In the post-December 4 environment, Russia's Team Putin has found itself in a bind.

They can crack down and try to shut down the growing protest movement in its infancy -- and risk greater instability, capital flight, and an even angrier public. This crew can be ruthless, but they probably don't have the stomach for that. It's also not at all clear that they have the resources or the consensus among the elite to pull it off.

Or they can take a stab at political reform. But they know very well that this can easily slip out of their control (see Gorbachev, Mikhail). Actually following through with a true political liberalization would eventually spell the end of the current regime.

So what they are left with are cosmetic changes around the margins that will satisfy nobody. This was on vivid display during Putin's televised live call-in program today.

The annual ritual took on an added significance this year and was supposed to showcase the new Putin, the one who understands he is in a new political environment. What it was, instead, was a tirade of contradictions and half-measures.

He praised the protestors, saying he was "pleased" to see "young, active people formulating their opinions" and even tried to take credit for the newfound civic activism. "If this is the result of the Putin regime, then that’s good!” he said. (Actually, as I have blogged here and here, it is -- but probably not in the way Putin meant.)

But he couldn't just leave it at that. He also couldn't resist ridiculing and mocking the demonstrators, saying the white ribbons they wear resemble condoms and suggesting they were being paid to take to the streets.

In an animated answer about alleged electoral fraud, Putin insisted the election results reflected the will of the voters and suggested placing webcams in polling places.

He also proposed a convoluted "reform" of the selecting governors that would involve the party controlling regional legislatures nominating candidates for the president's approval. The approved candidate would then face voters in a popular referendum.

And so the drama continues and next week promises to be just as interesting as the past two. Anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and Solidarity leader Ilya Yashin get out of jail on December 20 after serving their 15-day sentences. The new Duma convenes on December 21. President Dmitry Medvedev makes his state-of-the-nation speech on December 22. And mass protests are planned for Moscow and other cities December 24.

So hold onto your hats. This promises to be a wild ride.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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