A Rough Selection Campaign

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A recent game of musical chairs in Russia's law enforcement agencies saw Vladimir Ustinov, the long-serving prosecutor general who managed the case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismantlement of his company, Yukos, exchange posts with Justice Minister Yury Chaika. The swap has fueled speculation about an intensification of turf wars between competing factions within the Kremlin. Pundits have speculated that the reshuffle was a slap on the wrist from President Vladimir Putin to Ustinov, who had recently increased his public profile in a purported attempt to put himself forward as a presidential contender representing the hard-line siloviki grouping in the Kremlin. Although the talk was highly speculative, the reshuffle was still a clear sign of tension in the executive branch. In this sense, the job swap between Ustinov and Chaika is indicative of the general instability that is likely to characterize politics in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections.

The question of who will become Putin's handpicked candidate to run in and, almost certainly, win that vote dominates much of the discussion in contemporary politics. The conventional wisdom is that Putin will anoint a successor from among his coterie, who will then have the Kremlin's administrative, financial and media resources at his disposal. Since the chronically weak and divided Russian opposition is unlikely to put forward a viable candidate, the story goes, the election will be a banal formality with little in the way of real competition or controversy. The focus is thus on reading the tea leaves to determine whom Putin will choose as his successor. According to this logic, the pre-election period will be a political beauty contest between various top officials.

However, the simmering personnel conflicts within the Kremlin demonstrate that this narrative misses the point. While it is true that the election is likely to be little more than a formality, the selection process -- whereby one member of the ruling elite is chosen to be the Kremlin candidate -- is likely to be conflictual and possibly destabilizing, both politically and economically.

Ironically, Putin himself was propelled into power during a similar search for a successor when Boris Yeltsin decided that he would step down before the end of his term in office. But Putin's own policies over the past six years have transformed the politics of the selection process -- and politics in general -- into a zero-sum game with disastrous consequences for the losers.

While Khodorkovsky's arrest is the most celebrated example of this sort of politics, a more relevant case is that of Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon chased out of Russia in 2001. Berezovsky was instrumental in Putin's selection and spent large sums in support of his campaign. Yet soon after his election, Putin turned on Berezovsky, eventually forcing him out of the country and into exile.

The lesson of this episode is that even pre-election support for a candidate does not guarantee post-election security. Any official or businessman, no matter how loyal, can lose his assets, freedom or worse at the whim of the president. The Kremlin factions must be keenly aware of this. They cannot be sure that anyone but one of their own can ensure their safety once Putin is gone. For them, there is no such thing as a compromise candidate. They will thus do all they can between now and 2008 to make sure the selection process is decided in their favor.

The prospect of this selection process -- which unlike an election is not governed by any laws or norms of conduct -- becoming conflictual is all the more disconcerting because of the resources available to the competing factions. The unprecedented concentration of political and economic power in the executive branch presided over by Putin has armed these groups with huge resources -- including, for example, entire ministries, armed services, public utilities, billions of dollars in the bank and major media outlets -- that they can deploy to undermine one another during the selection process. The siloviki will gain a new war chest this month from the IPO of Rosneft (chaired by the man many identify as the head of their faction, presidential deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin), which is expected to bring in over $10 billion.

During the selection process, the conflict between the factions is likely to break into the open. How this struggle will manifest itself is a good question, but the factions now have a veritable arsenal of instruments that can be expended in the battle to choose the Kremlin candidate. Given the stakes, there is every reason to believe that there will be no holds barred in this campaign.

Samuel Charap is a doctoral candidate in political science at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.