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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A (Somewhat) More Democratic 2008 Scenario

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Russia has entered the latest dramatic period in its history, with two major elections scheduled over the next year and a half. The election for the State Duma is slated for this December and the presidential vote for March 2008, which will choose the successor to President Vladimir Putin, whose second term expires next year.

So far, most political analysts have predicted that Putin would simply name his successor, and the election would confirm his choice. That idea might come as a bit of a shock to many Western readers. After all, Russia is not a monarchy or some ancient tyrannical regime in which the ruler can simply transfer authority to someone else not according to established laws or even traditions, but solely at the discretion of the current ruler. In a true democracy, of course, the election step remains an important one.

The expectation here has been that people expect that one fine day Putin will simply appear on television and publicly announce whom he is endorsing and calling on the voters to support. This understanding sees the transfer of power following the 1999 scenario, in which President Boris Yeltsin proclaimed Putin as his successor.

But the current situation is different. In contrast to Yeltsin, Putin continues to be extremely popular, almost inexplicably so. Not even the administration's unpopular pension and health care reforms, or its equally unpopular public utilities policies, seem to have put a dent in his approval ratings.

Some pollsters suggest that Putin's official endorsement is worth about a 20 percent head start for a presidential candidate. Two possible candidates, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, have enjoyed most of the spotlight so far. Both are well known to voters and enjoy some level of popularity.

Another possibility that has been suggested by political analysts is that Putin may step down early, thus allowing the presidential and Duma elections to be held on the same day in December. This would allow the new president to ride into the Kremlin on the shoulders of the United Russia party, the prohibitive favorite to win a majority in the Duma.

In the meantime, nerves are becoming frayed and anxiety is growing in political circles as everyone wonders whom Putin will actually choose. With whom should they try to establish ties? Before whom should they bow and offer their oath of fidelity? How to avoid fawning over the wrong person? Placing your bet on the wrong player could prove a costly mistake for any major bureaucrat, politician or businessman.

The situation has been compared to that of a patient dying a slow death, as the uncertainty pervading the state political machinery has left it spinning its wheels. The political elite already appears to have been split by struggles between contending clans.

What is telling is that there is even agreement on this point between analysts loyal to the current leadership and those favoring opposition candidates.

One version of events so far is that the siloviki, led by powerful Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin, have formally blocked Medvedev's candidacy for the post of prime minister, and the steppingstone it could represent to the president's office. That leaves the Kremlin liberals -- a relative term in this case -- with only one candidate: Ivanov. Paradoxically, Ivanov does not belong to a hawkish political clan.

Reading the tea leaves, one of the honored traditions of Kremlinology, the fact that Medvedev is heading the Russian delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year would seem to be designed to provide him with positive coverage.

I recently conducted a telephone survey on my program "Vlast," carried on RTVi cable television and Ekho Moskvy radio, which generated some interesting results. Seventy seven percent of all respondents said they did not believe that Putin would endorse a single candidate to succeed him. Following these same lines, political analyst and former Kremlin insider Georgy Satarov has made a convincing argument that Putin will most likely offer a selection of favored candidates from within the upper echelons of government.

It is true that Putin has always been steadfastly loyal to the members of his team. All of those who followed Putin to the Kremlin from St. Petersburg -- fellow St. Petersburg State University law faculty graduates, colleagues from the local branch of the KGB and members of the city administration under the late Mayor Anatoly Sobchak -- have remained at their posts throughout Putin's tenure. Putin apparently depends a great deal on his team, judging from how it has remained relatively untouched over the last eight years, with only a minimum of horizontal shifts. It would be difficult for him to single out one candidate from among them.

If, instead, Putin chose to nominate a handful of candidates and leave it to the voters to pick from among them, the list might include the following options: Medvedev; Ivanov; State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who is also the siloviki's strongest candidate; Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin; and a regional leader, such as St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who has already formed a political action group called Valentina the Great. The main condition for inclusion in this select group is, of course, absolute loyalty to their predecessor and patron: Putin.

In this way Putin would be freed from the difficult and unpleasant task of naming a single candidate, while victory would be practically guaranteed for one person on the list. Such a victory would likely only come after a second-round runoff, with the victor possibly winning by only a slim margin. This would leave the winner, at least initially, in a weak and politically vulnerable position, which would require something like a system of checks and balances in order to work in government with his or her former rivals.

It's not hard to imagine Putin announcing at some future news conference that there are a number of people worthy of assuming the heavy burden of presidential authority, providing his own list, and saying he would support any one of them. He could then add that it would not be proper or democratic to endorse any one candidate. He might even go further and say Russia needs to take the next step toward democracy by conducting an election in which the winner would be determined through direct competition, with all of the leading candidates enjoying equal opportunities and access to the media. This, by the way, would significantly boost the winner's legitimacy. The winner would then have to do for Putin what Putin did for Yeltsin: guarantee the ex-president's safety and property.

But would Putin's team be ready for such a scenario? More importantly, what kind of status is Putin seeking for himself after leaving office? Only when he answers that question will we have a better idea of the scenario that will play out for the transfer of presidential authority in 2008.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.