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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Staying the Course

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Russia will elect a new president in 2008, and what the country needs and wants above all is continuity. Unlike the United States, which wanted a family-values president after Bill Clinton's sexual hijinks in the White House, and will in 2008 want someone as unlike the brainless George W. Bush as possible, Russia wants more of the same. Putin's 70 percent approval rating may be somewhat inflated because it costs nothing to say you back the president, but there's no doubt that those who like him do so genuinely. If the Russians can't have Putin, they'll opt for someone as Putin-like as possible.

Russia needs and wants continuity not only because people are satisfied with the country's increase in power, prosperity and prestige over the last seven years, but also because the country is still too fragile to undergo any more dramatic change. The election will come only 17 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and 10 years since the ruble did the same. The good numbers (one-quarter trillion dollars in cash reserves) are still very much matched by the bad (a death rate of 750,000 per year). People would prefer the stability of stagnation to any more rapid change.

Interestingly, over all the years from 1918, when Vladimir Lenin moved the Soviet capital from what was then Petrograd to Moscow to avoid a German advance, to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, not a single ruler came from the former capital. It seems fitting that St. Petersburg has regained prominence during the re-Europeanization of Russia and that Putin and a great number of his cohort are from that city. Putin's successor will likely be a "Leningrader," providing another strand of needed continuity.

Deeper into his or her rule, the next president may decide the country is ready for some social and economic reform to make it less dependent on oil and gas for income. Sooner or later, Russia will have to choose to develop its human infrastructure like Ireland or just to go on pumping gas like Saudi Arabia.

But no leader can initiate any such reforms until he or she has demonstrated a hand on the tiller at least as steady as Putin's. This is why the first two years of the next president's administration will be marked by a tightening of the screws. Independence will not be tolerated on the part of liberal intelligentsia or those who order contract hits against bankers, journalists, and businessmen.

Putin's only vocal enemy is Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire oligarch who is now a British citizen. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in November may have been a message to Berezovsky, the one public figure most likely to try to influence events in the tricky election transition. The new president, as Putin's hand-picked successor, will probably expect to be a target of Berezovsky's hostility as well.

The new leader will likely have a background in politics or security. Russia is not yet ready to be ruled by anyone connected with big business -- private or state -- and those in power won't allow a military man to rise to the top. Opposition leaders -- communists, liberals and nationalists -- are out of the question, as they lack any support now and special regulations would be designed to thwart them should they start to develop a following. The frontrunners so far are First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko could get the nod to put a progressive face on Russian politics. FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev might be a dark horse. He's the same age as Putin, from the same city, and heads the same organization Putin once headed. You couldn't ask for more continuity than that.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."