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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building a Successor-Safe System

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With the presidential election scheduled for March 2008 drawing ever closer, the amount of time political commentators and analysts are devoting to the "succession problem" continues to increase. Most of attention is focused on whom President Vladimir Putin will choose to replace him.

Will it be Dmitry Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov who lands the top spot? Will the balance tip in the direction of the Kremlin's more economically liberal wing or the siloviki? Or perhaps everyone would be better off if Putin remained in office for a few more years? Another possible, more democratic scenario is one in which Putin opts not to make a final decision at all, instead providing his own list of candidates and calling on the electorate to choose from among them.

Leaving all of this guesswork aside, Putin faces a more serious problem ahead than the choice between individuals and clans. The 2008 problem is not so much about who will lead the country after Putin, but about how that person will govern and what political course he (or she, not to forget St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko) will follow.

In other words, regardless of who is chosen and how the choice is made, how can Putin ensure that the changes he has put in place since taking office in 2000 will not be undone following 2008? Throw in reasonable concerns on the part of Putin and his close allies over their own security -- both economic and legal -- and you have to wonder how risky it is to put a lot of trust in a successor. What if the new president opts for a new course and makes some corrections in realms of policy and wealth distribution? We only have to take a look at where some of the people who were so close to President Boris Yeltsin in 1999 have ended up to understand the concern.

The decision-making process in Russia is hypercentralized and it is no secret that the presidential administration is able to influence, if not outright control, most decisions made within the political system. The State Duma, the government, the judiciary and political parties are independent actors right up to the point where the Kremlin wants something done.

Ironically, the more centralized a system like this is, the more unstable and difficult to control it often becomes. When there is only one center of decision-making authority, anyone gaining control of it has won the whole game.

So what happens if the successor can't work with the elite group he or she is supposed to lead? In this case, the new president either consolidates his or her position and wins over competitors, or a kind of turf war will erupt, complete with the return of all the old infighting and noncompliance from regional leaders and oligarchs. Either eventuality would be negative for Putin.

In the field of political economy, this problem is referred to as the "commitment problem," and two political scientists, Terry Moe and Murray Horn, have spent significant time studying the phenomenon in the relationship between legislators and governmental bodies in U.S. politics. Legislators set up these bodies and, therefore, are in a position to control them. But the party in power is always aware of the fact that it could lose that power in the following elections, at which point its opponents would be in a position to simply eliminate these bodies and reverse the policy. To prevent this from happening, legislators create civil service rules and regulations that render these governmental bodies more independent from legislative control.

We can apply the same kind of logic to an analysis of the succession problem. Following the old saw about not putting all your eggs in one basket, it would make sense to try to prevent the successor from having too much power and being able to operate without support from other political actors and institutions. This means that some sort of system of checks and balances must be created to provide the political system with both flexibility and stability. This function could be performed by the Constitutional Court, the Prosecutor General's Office, a political party or a combination of actors. The problem is that the Kremlin can't wait for a crisis to move, but would have to implement such measures now if they are to be visible and survive in the long term. To make the transition smoother, the system must be decentralized beforehand. New "veto players" -- a term coined by another political scientist, George Tsebelis -- have to be created who can act as a brake on any president trying to impose decisions on the current political elite.

It would be unrealistic, of course, to expect a significant, rapid decentralization of decision making under current political conditions. This would run directly counter to the entire political dynamic of the last seven years, and the introduction of this kind of decentralization just one year before the presidential election would likely lead to chaos. All the same, the creation of the party "A Just Russia," often referred to as the second party of power, is an indication of some recognition on the part of the powers that be that some decentralization is needed within the political system.

The paradox is that politicians do not need to have good intentions in the process of creating democratic institutions. In most cases these institutions have come into being as the unintended consequences of political actions. Russia's rulers are neither the KGB monsters nor the heroes trying to save the country that they are labeled as by different sources. At the most basic level, they are rational political actors pursuing their own interests within a particular institutional environment. They have nothing against democracy as long as it falls in line with their interests.

Sometimes this is the way it works.

Alexey Bessudnov is a doctoral student in sociology at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.