Who succeeds Putin? Ask Putin

Times Staff Writer

By showing up together at a Deep Purple concert here this fall, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov presumably were reliving more carefree days.

Ivanov was a teenager and Medvedev just a child when the British hard-rock group burst onto the international scene, a time when a clutch of Western bands gained near-iconic status among Soviet youths as symbols of social freedom.

The buzz here is that the two men are the leading contestants in a competition to be President Vladimir V. Putin's anointed successor when his second term expires in 2008.

So these were not just any two high-ranking officials, and their shared enthusiasm for "Smoke on the Water" may signal that they want to be viewed as friends and allies, not competitors.

They could, after all, end up as partners in a new power structure, with one serving as president and the other as prime minister.

"I am, of course, saddened by the fact that I have been made a contestant in some race, but it does not in any way affect my relations with Sergei Borisovich Ivanov," Medvedev told an interviewer for Russia's NTV news channel the day after the concert. The interviewer asked whether the two men had joined in the dancing.

"Well, we just applauded," the 41-year-old Medvedev replied.

What a missed opportunity, mused a columnist for the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "You must be thinking that shaking to Deep Purple is no big deal," the columnist wrote. "Yes, it is a big deal, sirs, if the problem of 2008 could be resolved quite easily by such a dance. The one who dances better becomes president."

With Putin enjoying popularity ratings above 70% and holding ever greater centralized power, a presidential endorsement is widely seen here as key to succeeding him. That means the current contest among Medvedev, Ivanov and other potential candidates for the big man's nod may well prove more crucial than the 2008 election in determining Russia's course.

The personality and goals of the winner could nudge the country toward greater authoritarianism or toward a more decentralized and democratic political system.

Russia's constitution bars the president from a third consecutive term, and Putin has repeatedly said he does not favor revising it to allow him to continue in office past 2008. But in nationally televised comments in October, he suggested he might continue to wield influence after he leaves the job.

That comment was taken by some as an indication that Putin might seek to exercise power from another position, such as prime minister, or that he envisioned a role like that played by Deng Xiaoping after the late Chinese leader retired from his official positions.

Putin, 54, has support from more than two-thirds of parliament, so speculation remains that a way may be found for him to stay on as president. One scenario has him giving in to a groundswell of public opinion and allowing the constitution to be revised.

But if he does step down, as most observers think he will, it is clear that whomever he backs as successor will stand a very good chance of being elected. A July survey by the respected Levada Center polling agency found that 40% of respondents said they would vote for a candidate proposed by Putin, compared with 14% who would favor someone else.

As long as the Kremlin elite stays united around one candidate, that person can expect strongly favorable coverage on all nationwide TV channels, which are either state-run or owned by state-controlled businesses. Few observers think an opposition candidate would have much chance of overcoming that advantage.

"If Putin names a successor and backs him, his chances of winning the presidency will be extremely high provided there are no huge surprises," said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think tank with ties to the Kremlin. "Practically, we are talking about 99% probability here."

Markov said he believed Medvedev and Ivanov had the inside track.

Other possible candidates, he said, include Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin; parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov; Georgy Poltavchenko and Dmitry Kozak, influential presidential representatives to the southern and central federal districts; Mikhail Prusak, governor of the Novgorod region; and presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Sobyanin.

Markov also suggested the two presumed leading contenders might work as a team: Ivanov, 53, running for president with the understanding that Medvedev would be prime minister.

"This question has not been resolved yet, and this is just one of the possible options," Markov said.

Medvedev and Ivanov were thrust into the limelight as potential successors when they were appointed deputy prime ministers in November 2005. Medvedev was previously Putin's chief of staff, and Ivanov added the new title and broader responsibilities to his job as defense minister.

Ivanov, like Putin, worked for the KGB for many years. An early career with Soviet intelligence has generally been a plus for ambitious officials since Putin became president in 2000.

Medvedev began his career as a St. Petersburg law professor and legal affairs advisor.

"Medvedev's strength is that he is a pro-Western manager," Markov said.

"His weak side is that he is not connected with the people from the security apparatus, and so far he hasn't shown himself to be a strong leader able to make strong decisions. So far he appears too soft for the job."

Some skeptics question whether all the attention paid to Medvedev and Ivanov since their promotions is just a sideshow, with Putin's real pick likely to be someone with a lower profile.

"I am quite confident that neither Medvedev nor Ivanov will be chosen as a successor," said Dmitry Oreshkin, an analyst at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Geography. "The fuss around them is nothing but, to use the KGB terminology, the Kremlin's 'cover operation' to hide the preparation of the real plans.

"If a real successor gets appointed, he will appear some six months before the election like a rabbit from a hat or a devil from a box," Oreshkin said. "The real successor will immediately commit some heroic deed, like defeating Georgia in a lightning military operation, for example, or something on that scale, and thus will get elected by a landslide."

Oreshkin suggested that Yakunin, the railways president, who is considered personally close to Putin, may be a strong contender for that scenario.

Although Yakunin's official biography makes no mention of ties to the KGB, his early career path, which included a stint with the Soviet mission to the United Nations, suggests such links.

Yakunin "can be quite reasonable and demanding as a manager, and he is also a strong proponent of a powerful state," Oreshkin said. "In some ways he may become an even harder and tougher president than Putin himself."

Mikhail G. Delyagin, chairman of the Institute of Globalization Studies, a Moscow think tank, cited the common analysis that the Kremlin is broadly divided into two competing groups: the siloviki, or "powerful ones," and the liberals, with that label used in its classic free-market sense, not in its political-left meaning.

The siloviki have KGB backgrounds or are otherwise associated with security and defense, and are typically more politically hard-line. The liberals are composed largely of economic technocrats who do not have security backgrounds.

Medvedev is widely viewed as the standard-bearer of the liberal camp within the Kremlin, while Putin's deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin, 46, is seen as leader of the siloviki.

Delyagin noted that most analysts do not consider Sechin a candidate for successor. But he argued that precisely because Sechin is not included on such lists, his chances may be quite good.

"He is the second in command in the country now," Delyagin said. "He is very smart and very influential. Moscow intellectuals like to laugh at him, but that only shows how shortsighted Moscow intellectuals are."

Delyagin, a prominent Putin critic, also offered another scenario for the election.

Putin can yield the throne, but the anointed successor "can quickly get sick after the election," he said, noting that the constitution bars Putin not from a third term, but from a third consecutive term.

Putin, he suggested, could allow "Comrade Medvedev" to be elected president -- but with an understanding that he will resign almost immediately, claiming ill health.

In that case, he said, "new elections will be held and Putin will be able to take part in them."


Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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