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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

POWER PLAY: Speaker Deal Will Show Us Who Putin Is




Moscow this week witnessed a rollicking premiere with the opening day of the new State Duma. No analysts, myself included, had foreseen at all what would come of the session: an alliance between the Communists and acting President Vladimir Putin's pet faction, Unity.


The show's script went like this: Having lost the Moscow region gubernatorial elections, Gennady Seleznyov - the Communist speaker of the last Duma, the lower house of parliament - appeared to be the most convenient and the most controllable figure from the Kremlin's point of view to become the speaker for this Duma too. Seleznyov has lived his whole life in the offices of the nomenklatura and to keep his seat, he is willing to make deals. It was no surprise for those who know Russian politics that raging anti-Communist Boris Berezovsky supported Seleznyov in his bid for Moscow region governor.


The play's directors also rose to the surface: They were the chief of staff's two deputies, Igor Shabduraslov and Vladislav Surkov, who both served in the previous administration as well. Shabduraslov was the one who whipped up the Unity bloc in the first place, and Surkov had been given the task of cementing close ties between the Kremlin and the Duma. So Tuesday, during the Duma sessions recess, Surkov gathered the leaders of the Communist Party, Unity and the People's Deputy in his office. During this meeting, they all decided to blow off the other parties and movements and demonstrate the rule of majority.


The only question that remains, then, is who commissioned this play? Putin's opening speech for the session overflowed with words like "consolidation" and "it's time to stop the political battle of ambition," which makes it tempting to suggest that he ordered it all up himself. If that turns out to be true, those who predict apocalypse for Russia will have to line up to be congratulated. The war in Chechnya plus a union with the Communists lead to the gloomiest predictions for the future of democracy in Russia after the presidential elections, in which there are practically no alternatives to Putin.


However, we shouldn't hurry in our conclusions. Putin is still a blank page. Before Dec. 31, he was never a self-sustained politician: He was always answering to someone else. Many in his entourage, which is divided between different and fiercely competitive clans and interest groups, are trying to write their own scripts. Putin's reaction to the Duma scandal will tell us whether he ordered the show or whether he is yet a student in politics who cannot help but be manipulated by those who have more experience on Russia's Byzantine scene.


The latter option sounds bad, certainly, but it is more promising for democrats. If, however, Putin did commission the show, then Russia's democrats can congratulate themselves for unmasking the true face of Russia's future president 2 1/2 months before the March 26 election, instead of after. Voters will be able to judge Putin by real deeds then.


And the second positive outcome of this repulsive situation is that for the first time there is hope for a coalition of right-of-center blocs that has a chance of becoming efficient opposition to the regime. Russia's democrats have gone through worse times. And the show isn't over yet.


Yevgenia Albats is an independent political analyst and journalist based in Moscow.