assessments

Putin Handpicks His Successor

4 MINS READDec 10, 2007 | 15:04 GMT
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Russian President Vladimir Putin formally endorsed First Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev as Russia's next president Dec. 10.
Russian First Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev on Dec. 10 received President Vladimir Putin's blessing to succeed him. Putin's endorsement is the only one that matters, and de facto seals the question of who will be Russia's next president. While no intellectual pushover, Medvedev is not a man of his own mind and he will not be a strong president. From Putin's point of view, Medvedev's key qualities are his creativity and his loyalty. After all, Putin is only stepping down from office due to term limits — he is hardly stepping down from power. Putin took Medvedev under his wing when the two of them both worked for the St. Petersburg mayor's office at the end of the Cold War. Unlike many within Putin's cadre of supporters, Medvedev does not share Putin's background in either the security or intelligence services. A lawyer by training, Medvedev is more accurately thought of as an economic technocrat with an appreciation for the benefits of a strong state. It is Medvedev who is the public face of Russian state energy mammoth Gazprom, and his hand has shaped much Russian policy in the energy sector, including the January 2006 natural gas cutoff to Ukraine. (This is literal; Medvedev was the person who, on live television, pulled the lever that reduced the natural gas flow.) From a purely public relations point of view, Medvedev is an excellent choice. He is viewed within Russia as something of a sex symbol and a people's man. He also has sufficient diplomatic skills to be someone that the Europeans and Americans can have civil conversations with, no matter how cold relations may turn; and he has enough influence in the Russian government to make decisions stick. Russia is evaluating its foreign policy options as the Iranians and Americans seem to be sliding closer to a deal, and Medvedev is the logical choice for president should Russia decide to push for a softer line in international affairs. Yet Medvedev has also failed to impress Putin in recent months, as a couple of tantrums cost him Putin's respect and led to his being sidelined from much government activity lately. The fact that he was selected in spite of this holds three implications. First, Medvedev was not chosen for his strengths, but for his weakness. Putin realizes that his consolidation of the government has elevated the Federal Security Service (FSB) to a position even more powerful than it enjoyed under Soviet rule. No longer an arm of the state, the FSB is very close to being that state. Better, then, to have the presidency in the hands of anyone but the FSB. The last thing Putin wants was an old intel man in power who could shove him aside. Medvedev might be able to demand the FSB's respect, but he will never have their loyalty. The biggest challenge to Medvedev's presidency will come from this corner. Luckily for Medvedev, his boss will take personal responsibility for keeping the FSB in line. Second, the endorsement is a warning to Igor Sechin, one of Putin's chief lieutenants. Lately Sechin has been engaged not only in a power struggle with other Kremlin players but also in a series of dangerous power plays that have threatened the government's stability during the transition process. Handing the presidency to someone who is not a Sechin ally is, aside from a sniper's bullet, as strong of a signal Putin can send to Sechin to simmer down. Finally, Medvedev's primary puppetmaster is not Putin, but Putin's chief ally, Vladislav Surkov. Though Surkov and his rival, Sechin, have been locked in a dangerous clan turf war, Surkov has proven he can control his ego, his appetite for control and (most importantly) his people, without rocking the boat. Now, that loyalty and control is being rewarded in the endorsement of his star ally — Medvedev. Surkov may be a dangerous man — as he demonstrated while destroying Yukos and smashing the Chechen militant resistance — but the one thing he knows is his place under Putin. Unlike Sechin, Surkov is not a pretender to the throne. He is perfectly aware that his heritage — rumors place him as half-Jewish, half-Chechen — automatically eliminates him as a serious candidate for Russia's public face. He is quite content to be the grey cardinal lurking in the shadows.

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