Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making Sure Zubkov Does Not Get Dizzy

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

President Vladimir Putin agreed to run as the top candidate on United Russia's ticket and did not rule out serving as prime minister after the presidential election in March.

Putin was probably confident that United Russia would remain the "party of power" that would willingly lick the boots of the next president -- whoever that turned out to be. Putin's hidden message was: "I am free to manipulate the party as I see fit and certainly not the other way around."

The Kremlin is not worried about the State Duma election campaign or about how to form a government after those elections. It is worried about just one thing -- who will become the next president in 2008.

The problem is simple: How can Putin hold onto authority without degenerating into an autocrat like Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko? Or, how can Putin "lease out" the presidency in such a way that the temporary owner would return the president's chair upon Putin's first request?

It appears that Putin has opted for the approach suggested by Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin deputy chief of staff. In this scenario, Viktor Zubkov is appointed prime minister and then becomes president to reserve this post for Putin. Then Putin slides down a notch to prime minister.

The only problem with this is that Putin has diminished the role of the prime minister. After all, he changed prime ministers at the snap of his fingers by simply rubbing out the "Frad" in Fradkov and writing in "Zub" for Zubkov. The post of prime minister is clearly not the place for someone with Putin's ambitions.

According to the scenario, Zubkov would at some point abandon the post of president for "health reasons," and Putin would step in to execute his duties until the next presidential election.

Another, more complicated, possibility is that President-elect Zubkov would suggest changing the Constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years and then call for new elections.

Will either of these scenarios play out? It is difficult to say.

Putin has constructed his vertical power structure to ensure that enormous power is concentrated in one man -- the president. Whoever happens to sit in that chair will automatically undergo a transformation, not unlike a Hobbit who finds the Great Ring of Power. Once he puts the ring on his finger, he will never want to let it go.

Putin is not a charasmatic dictator or a bloody tyrant. His friends trick him and use him for their own needs. The only thing Putin has is his Great Ring of Power. Once it falls into someone else's hands, however, there is nothing to stop the next president from doing exactly what Anna Ivanovna did when she ruled the Russian Empire from 1730 to 1740: She simply tore up the agreed-upon conditions that would have made her a figurehead in the government and proceeded instead to rule as an autocrat. Putin's future job as prime minister and his decision to run on the United Russia ticket look very much like an attempt to impose similar "conditions" on the next president.

The other requirement is that the successor must be compliant and he must lack ambition. Twice during the last two years, Putin was about to remove Zubkov from his job as head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service and send him into "retirement" in the Federation Council. In retrospect, it seems those were "trial runs" to see how easily Zubkov could come to terms with being out of power. As it turned out, he was quite willing to step down without any fuss.

In the remaining months before the presidential election, Putin will watch to see whether being a potential presidential successor makes Zubkov's head spin and whether his political rise whets his appetite for more power -- more than it would if Sergei Ivanov were in this spot.

Zubkov has passed the first test, but will he pass the next one?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.