Russia's Succession Minefield

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On Moscow's Romanov Pereulok stands a handsome apartment building dating from the turn of the 20th century. Its facade is festooned with memorial plaques bearing dozens of names of illustrious former tenants, including Semyon Budyonny, a Red Cavalry commander in the Russian Civil War, and Alexei Kosygin, a Soviet prime minister.

Most lived the privileged lives of top Soviet nomenklatura and now rest behind Lenin's Mausoleum. But two men, Nikolai Voznesenky and Alexei Kuznetsov, commemorated here by nearly identical modest plaques, died young. These two apparatchiks from Leningrad were regarded as Stalin's anointed heirs briefly in the late 1940s. Then came their downfall. Undermined by the intrigues of Stalin's entourage, who knew how to exploit the boss' paranoia, they were arrested and shot in 1950.

But by early 1953, Stalin had apparently grown weary of the rest of his Politburo as well. Evidence suggests that he was preparing another murderous purge at the time of his death. Starting with the trial of mostly Jewish surgeons and physicians accused of plotting to kill Soviet leaders, it was to feature a nationwide pogrom and the arrest and execution of Stalin's closest comrades.

Some historians believe that his intended victims acted to pre-empt the blow. Stalin's death, which conveniently came at the height of his anti-Semitic witch hunt, was probably no accident. He might have been poisoned, and even if he did die of natural causes, medical help was probably intentionally withheld.

This story illustrates the dangers inherent in the transfer of power in Russia. Once the heir is picked, rivals unite in their struggle against him. Worse, there is a risk that the losing camp will act against the ruler before the transfer of power becomes a fait accompli.

Of course, post-Soviet Russia is a very different place from Stalin's U.S.S.R. But many aspects have not changed that much. Political power remains personified by an individual ruler, whose personality is conflated with his office. The institution of power transfer by a living ruler does not exist, and most Russians, opinion polls show, are hostile to this concept. When Boris Yeltsin became the first Russian leader to step down voluntarily, the transition was handled on an improvised, ad hoc basis.

Just as Yeltsin chose him, Putin has now picked Dmitry Medvedev. However, his choice was influenced by the fierce struggle of rival clans, which present a united facade and swear fealty to Putin but in reality are locked in a fight with each other.

A recent article in The Guardian explained why Putin wants to leave the presidency and detailed the lineups vying to succeed him. According to this version, Putin wants to enjoy his hidden wealth, estimated by analyst Stanislav Belkovsky at around $40 billion, and to lead the international life of the super-wealthy, a la Roman Abramovich perhaps. Medvedev represents a pro-business wing in the Kremlin. It is opposed by a hard-line group headed by Viktor Sechin and composed of former KGB brass. Putin will need to stay on as prime minister, the article says, to shield his protege from his former colleagues. If this analysis is correct, the coming months could be extremely dangerous -- for Putin no less than for Medvedev. Those who pooh-pooh the murky undercurrent of violence in Russia's business-political axis need only to remember the murder of Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of the Central Bank.

When reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a government critic, was gunned down, Putin acknowledged that her death was meant to undermine him, stating that her "murder harms the Russian ... leadership much more than any newspaper article could do."

The blatant poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London might have been another warning to Putin. It has surely made buying an English football club a lot more difficult for him than, say, for Abramovich.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.