- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2007

Just when we thought we had things figured out, Russian President Vladimir Putin did the unexpected. He announced he would head the party list in the election and as such would surely be named prime minister by whoever his successor might be.

We had thought Mr. Putin would yield power to a successor, anointed by him but also approved by the KGB state, and retire to a lucrative sinecure, such as chief executive officer of Gazprom. It now appears he wishes to hold on to power, either as the head of revamped government or as a replacement for an aging president who somehow decides to step down in his favor. The consensus had been that his successor would be chosen by Russia-KGB Inc. It did not particularly matter if it was an obscure figure (as was Mr. Putin in 1999) or already known on the world stage. We now have to go back to the drawing board to figure this out. What do we know for sure?

(1) We know Mr. Putin was an obscure figure with strong KGB credentials when singled out to replace Boris Yeltsin. He lacked a personal power base and was chosen by a “committee” of leaders of the resurgent KGB, renamed the FSB. Given the half-century Soviet aversion to “cults of personality,” it is unlikely there was any intent to make him a dominant and supreme leader. After all, during the reign of Josef Stalin’s cult, 80 percent of the then NKVD’s regional party leaders were purged — an experience that surely entered the FSB’s collective memory.

(2) We know Russia-KGB Inc., does not need Mr. Putin to win upcoming parliamentary or presidential elections. Russia-KGB Inc. controls the media, has massive collections of compromising material on opposition candidates and will not hesitate to come down viciously on any true opposition contender. It is not to be deterred by Western public opinion, which it knows is a paper tiger. Russia-KGB Inc., could easily elect the proverbial dogcatcher through its iron control of the apparat. Even the weak regime of Boris Yeltsin could re-elect him, starting from a 5 percent popularity rating.

(3) The Russian constitution empowers the president to fire the government at will. Friendship may be friendship, but as Stalin used to say “business is business.” Mr. Putin would need incredible control over the next president (perhaps in the form of “kompromat,” or information warfare) to ensure he is not summarily dismissed. Surely some influential directors of Russia-KGB Inc. would like to see him go. How can he be sure this won’t backfire?

(4) For Mr. Putin, the office of prime minister is much inferior to that of president. The Russian president can follow the time-honored tradition of scapegoating his government. If pensions are not paid, he fires the guilty minister. Stalin resisted assuming the office of prime minister until the outbreak of World War II for this very reason. The head of the party was not held responsible for failures; members of government were. As prime minister, Mr. Putin would have to bear the indignities of future economic declines, mine disasters, and foreign policy setbacks.

(5) It would seem the members of the board of directors of Russia-KGB Inc. would not necessarily welcome a Putin cult of personality. They may be waiting their turn. They know the personal dangers of a too powerful leader who can compromise them or worse. As Stalin’s successors gathered at his deathbed in March 1953, they already decided Internal Affairs Ministry chief Lavrenty Beria had too much power for comfort. By December, Beria was dead with a bullet in the back of his head.

In short, we have a confusing mess that defies easy interpretation. One overlooked possibility is that the conventional wisdom is correct about the orderly succession of power following a Vatican-like procedure. Mr. Putin is simply engaging in a feint to avoid lame-duck status.

Another interpretation is that the board of directors of Russia-KGB Inc. has, for some unexplained reason, decided it needs a Putin cult of personality. The third explanation is that Mr. Putin, driven by his personal power and popularity, has decided to anoint himself, contrary to the true wishes of his board of directors. If this is so, we are in for exciting times.

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Cullen Professor of Economics at the University of Houston and research professor at Berlin’s German Institute for Economic Research.

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