June 15, 2007

The Kremlin's Third Path

Things had quieted down a bit in the Russian 2008 presidential race. And then, at the end of this week, there was this:

"We have two active individuals who work as first deputy prime ministers with various responsibilities and who are rather liberal in their views," said Kremlin aide Igor Shuvalov at a June 14 political conference in Washington, DC. "People are talking about these two candidates, potential candidates, but my president could yet offer one more surprise and, perhaps later in this year, you will learn of yet another possible person."

The statement - clearly sanctioned at the highest levels, as someone of this stature in the Kremlin does not make off the cuff remarks to American political scientists and keep their job - was revealing on many levels.

First, the point Shuvalov makes in the first line of his quote, that the two current "candidates" are both rather liberal in their views. This echoes a line we have been hearing from other quarters and which resonates with the fear-mongering that has been going on since early in the year (Kondopoga, et al), suggesting that Russians and non-Russians alike should be careful, or a much more conservative "figure" than Putin or Medvedev or Ivanov will rise to prominence.

Second, was Shuvalov's use of the phrase "my president" (moy prezident). It is a revealing turn of phrase that shows the level to which power is personalized in the Kremlin. The statement almost seemed as if it was not directed at the assembled Western audience, but at other Kremlin factions or clans: "Watch yourselves, rebyata, keep things in line or life could get worse, very much worse..."

Of course, the other thing driving this statement (along with some of the more bellligerent remarks by the president of late) is that Putin desparately does not want to become irrelevant, a "khromaya utka" (lame duck) for the next eight months. Too much focus on successors means less attention on Putin and what he wants to get done in the next few months.

And so, the film is rolling and the play-acting continues. Pundit will start peering into the shadows, evaluating possible dark horses, from Naryshkin and Zhukov, to Sobyanin, Matviyenko and Patrushev. And much will be made that it is "the voters" who will decide, in a democratic electoral process. But everyone knows that not all votes are created equal. Not in Russia, not anywhere.

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