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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Managers Hold Tenders Instead of Auditions

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The question of who will succeed Vladimir Putin when his second term ends next year has been the hottest topic for political analysts and journalists for at least a year now. It's not surprising: The future configuration of Russian politics will depend to a great extent on who is the next president and how the transition of power will occur under "managed democracy." What is surprising is that the experts are only trying to determine who will get the nod. That Putin might not make a choice doesn't appear to have crossed anyone's mind.

This might be due to the fact that former President Boris Yeltsin chose Putin to follow him. That Yeltsin managed to pull this off in a chaotic political climate seems to convince people that it should be a cinch for Putin during a period of order and stability. This is a mistake.

Yeltsin began preparing for the transition of authority two years before the 2000 presidential election. The preparations involved a kind of casting call, by which prospective candidates were given a chance to read for the part of president while serving in the post of prime minister. For various reasons, Yeltsin was dissatisfied with the performances of Viktor Chernomyrdin, Sergei Kiriyenko, and Sergei Stepashin. Yevgeny Primakov never stood a chance, as he did not fit with the ruling elite and his appointment in 1998 was just a temporary concession to the State Duma and a stopgap measure while the government extricated itself from the default crisis. Ultimately, Yeltsin invited Putin, then the head of the Federal Security Service, to give the role a shot.

It would be naive, of course, to believe Yeltsin did this single-handedly, as the oligarchs haunting the halls of the Kremlin also played a role. What is important for our discussion is not who was involved, but the mechanism involved in the transfer of authority.

As Yeltsin's successor and Russia's rightful ruler, Putin has managed to bring relative order to the economic, political and public life of the country. He did so by establishing his notorious "vertical of power" and fine-tuning his system of managed democracy. Although there seems to be little that could stop him from seeking and winning a third term and the numerous "appeals from the people" we have seen to this effect, Putin has rejected the possibility out of hand. So we are back to the successor paradigm. This time, the process is entirely different from what we saw in 1998 and 1999.

Putin seems to have no intention of using the prime minister's job to run a casting call. Instead, he seems to be looking to find a replacement by tender. Long-serving Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's lack of presidential ambitions has allowed high-ranking members of the government, the presidential administration and from among regional governors to position themselves as the best candidate for job. Putin let it be known that he approved of the competition as a means of identifying the strongest among them, emphasized his impartiality toward the individual candidates and then promoted both Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev to the post of first deputy prime minister as the two candidates garnering the highest "ratings." This leaves a small group of candidates in position to vie for the post.

Meanwhile, Putin has shown no sign of naming a successor in the near future. At his annual news conference in February, he said there would not be a successor, per se, but that he might express his preference as a Russian citizen. He said this would happen no sooner than the official start of the election campaign.

As a tactic to provide for continuity, this method is imperfect, at best. The campaign begins after the candidates have come forward and registered, so who will represent the Kremlin camp if the president has not expressed his opinion? None of the candidates enjoys popularity ratings even close to Putin's. The presence of two "parties of power," equally loyal to the president but openly squabbling between themselves only complicates matters further. Without an indication from Putin, United Russia and A Just Russia might advance their own candidates, creating unpredictability in the whole process.

It's difficult to understand Putin's approach. Yeltsin is commonly referred to as a democrat and a liberal, while Putin is generally tagged as an authoritarian leader. The authoritarian approach surely would be to control the process of succession. But Putin doesn't seem to be demonstrating much desire to do so. Why?

One possibility is that Putin is simply tired of wielding the reigns of authority.

Although he didn't enjoy the same level of popularity as Putin, Yeltsin was a born politician and keenly interested in ensuring political continuity. He also had an interest in making sure that his successor would provide some guarantees for his person and property once he left office.

Putin, on the other hand, is not a politician at heart. Instead, he is more in the mold of the capable administrative and commercial manager. This goes a long way to explaining why he seems to be shying away from the responsibility that has now fallen to him. After six years at the helm, the weight of authority seems to have taken its toll -- to the extent that Putin seems prepared to let the question of who will succeed him play itself out as it will. The problem isn't even that he is leaving office. The problem is that, in effect, he has already left. Last year, two years before the election to replace him, Putin effectively stopped running the show. Today, he only continues to act as if he still governs the country.

At the same time, as a competent manager Putin has used the petrodollars raining down like manna from heaven to turn state-owned Gazprom into the country's most effective company and placed it largely at the service of the state. This increasing attention to administrative and economic effectiveness has led to a situation where Russia's interests have narrowed to the point that they reflect Gazprom's interests. This would explain why much of Putin's activity over the last year has been directed toward securing the interest of the gas giant. In cases where the country's geopolitical interests come into conflict with those of Gazprom, it is Gazprom that wins out, as was clear in the showdown with Belarus over gas prices at the beginning of the year.

While this is certainly good for Gazprom, it doesn't do much to help provide stability in the country on the eve of the presidential election. This kind of political vacuum is the type of thing that can push a system into crisis. Such a crisis would provide an opportunity for outsider candidates to contend for the presidency. As the only sufficiently organized opposition still existing in the country, forces from the left of the political spectrum might provide the candidate able to fill the void.

Andrei Karelin is president of the New Political System Foundation.