Just when we thought we had things figured out, Vladimir Putin did the unexpected. He announced that he would head the party list and as such would surely be named prime minister by his successor, whoever that might be. We had thought that 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 the CEO of Gazprom. Putin’s successor was to be chosen by Russia-KGB Inc.. It did not particularly matter whether it was an obscure figure (as Putin was himself in 1999) or a political figure already known on the world stage. Putin’s plan to hold on to power, either as the head of revamped government or as a replacement of a figure-head president who somehow decides to step down in his favor, seems to be clear.
Josef Stalin was the dictator of the USSR from the victory over his last formidable rivals in 1930 until his death in March of 1953. The fact that he executed all but two regional party secretaries, more than half of the central committee, and about half of the Politburo so shook the Soviet leadership that they banded together to execute security chief Lavrenty Beria in December of 1953, the only one with apparent ambitions to assume Stalin’s mantle. Thereafter, the USSR was run by the Politburo with the General Secretary as first among equals. Stalin’s “cult of personality” was avoided. He General Secretary served until his death. His incapacitation was inconvenient but the powerful departments of the Central Committee could run the show on their own.
Stalin’s and Putin’s rise to power show striking parallels. Both were obscure and appointed by persons they would later eliminate. After Lenin’s second stroke of December 1922 removed him from active politics, two of Lenin’s likely successors – Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev – allied themselves with the obscure Stalin to block Leon Trotsky. It was this troika that ruled Russia until their falling out in 1926. Kamenev and Zinoviev soon realized their mistake; Stalin was managing the Politburo on his own. Too late they joined forces with Trotsky only the be expelled from power in a tempestuous Politburo meeting in 1927. It was not until 1937 that Stalin exacted his full revenge. The “mad dogs” Kamenev and Zinoviev were executed in the first Moscow Show Trial.
Similarly, Putin was an obscure figure with strong KGB credentials when he was singled out to replace Boris Yeltsin. He lacked a personal power base and was chosen by a “committee” that included Oligarchs favored by the Yeltsin family and leaders of the resurgent KGB, renamed the FSB. Given the half century Soviet aversion to “cults of personality”, it is unlikely that there was any intent at the time to make him a dominant and supreme leader even on the part of the FSB. After all, during Stalin’s personality cult eighty percent of the NKVD’s regional party leaders were purged – an experience which surely entered the FSB’s collective memory.
There was nothing special about Putin. He was not needed to win the upcoming parliamentary or presidential elections. The ruling elite controlled the media, had compromising material on opposition candidates, and did not hesitate to come down viciously on any real opposition contender. They are not to be deterred by Western public opinion, which they know 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 reelect him starting from a popularity rating of five percent.
Putin, like Stalin before him, lost no time in eliminating those who put him in power. The patient Stalin had to wait seven years to accumulate dictatorial power. He had to wait another seven before he could physically annihilate his enemies. Putin’s pace was much faster. The Yeltsin family was bought off with guarantees of amnesty and financial security. His attacks on unpopular oligarchs sent them into luxurious but insecure exile. The one oligarch who chose to fight ended up in a Siberian jail, sentenced by “telephone justice” (the verdict dictated by the Kremlin).
Third, the Russian Constitution gives the Russian president the power to fire the government at will. Friendship may be friendship but as Stalin used to say “business is business.” Putin would have to have incredible control over the next president (perhaps in the form of kompromat) to ensure that he is not summarily dismissed. Surely there are influential directors of Russia-KGB Inc. who would like to see him go. How can he be sure that his maneuvers will not backfire?
Fourth, for a 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 prime ministership 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. A prime minister Putin would have to bear the indignities of future economic declines, mine disasters, or foreign policy setbacks.
Fourth, it would seem that 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 death bed in March of 1953, they already decided that MVD head 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 about the orderly succession of power following a Vatican-like procedure is correct. 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, itself decided that it needs a Putin cult of personality. The third explanation is that 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 explanation proves to be true, we are in for exciting times.