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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Real Transfer of Power as Putin's Surprise

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The election campaigning season has begun, and in a little less than three months we will know which parties have made it into the new State Duma and which have not. In less than six months we will finally have an answer to the nagging question that's been troubling us for so long: Who will be the next president?

With regard to the parties, it is pretty clear that United Russia will win over 50 percent of the seats in the Duma. A two-thirds majority is necessary, however, to amend the Constitution and to pass a number of other important measures. So the Kremlin will likely need the cooperation of another party. A Just Russia, another pro-Kremlin party expected to win a fair number of seats in the Duma, looks made for this supporting role. The Communist Party will probably place third.

That leave just two other parties with a chance at reaching the new 7 percent threshold necessary to qualify for seats: Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party and the Union of Right Forces. It would come as no surprise if both failed, and the whole affair already feels rather boring, vapid and predictable.

Perhaps this explains why there are so many incredible stories circulating about the presidential vote. People need intrigue. Rumors abound of unexpected appointments and dismissals, dark horse candidates for successor whom President Vladimir Putin will produce from up his sleeve at the right moment.

These conspiracy theories usually come from writers lacking inside information from the Kremlin and trying to hide this with stories taken from the realm of political fantasy.

I claim no exclusive knowledge here and definitely have no idea what is going on in Putin's mind, but I do know that whatever is going on in there will ultimately determine everything else. A lack of transparency is the distinguishing feature of politics under Putin. Nevertheless, I am sure that the real causes of events are pretty straightforward and searching for intricate and convoluted explanations leads nowhere.

Putin is certainly concerned about life after he leaves office. He can't afford the kind of pariah status achieved by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is effectively confined to his own country. To avoid such a risk, it is important that he pass along the presidency in strict adherence to all legal procedural requirements so that nobody can later accuse him of violations, manipulations or intrigues. This means he has to leave at the end of this term.

And I am increasingly convinced there will be no surprise successor. Putin will name the candidate who most frequently appears on television, receives the most positive press, and does best in the polls.

That probably means First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.

If you don't agree, give me three good arguments why he would not be a suitable successor.

Many have long held that Ivanov would be a tough sell in the West, but this seems unfounded. Western leaders are pragmatists. Ivanov has traveled widely and met with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with whom he has a good relationship. Ivanov lived in the West for years and has a decent command of English, as well as Swedish. Being able to speak to other leaders without a translator and understanding their way of life to some degree is another factor in his favor.

Some suggest a second president with a KGB background is going too far, but that is unlikely to sway Putin, who has consistently named former security service officers to major posts. He seems to believe they have a particular merit, so why should he abandon this staffing principle when choosing a successor?

True, Ivanov's tenure as defense minister was inauspicious, if not disastrous. But rocket failures and hazing scandals seem not to have blemished his reputation too seriously. The main consideration for Putin seems not to be performance, but loyalty.

Ivanov has known Putin since their student days. He has free access to the president at almost any time and can even visit Putin at his home unannounced on weekends. Kremlin insiders say that Putin trusts Ivanov more than any other member of his inner circle. He does not seem to be beholden to any of the Kremlin's different factions. He is Putin's man and nobody else's.

It is said that the siloviki -- which include Kremlin deputy chiefs of staff Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov and Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev -- opposes an Ivanov candidacy, fearing he has dangerous hidden liberal tendencies. But they have not managed to offer an alternative. If Putin asked them whom they would prefer, it would end the discussion.

It seems to me that the biggest mistake observers make in trying to guess Putin's plan is in assuming that the next president will be as categorically domineering a leader as Putin is. Putin himself might want to create a balance of power. The next president will start off in a weaker political position because Putin's unprecedented and unwavering popularity cannot simply be passed along to his successor. So this relatively weak president could be paired with, for example, a strong, independent and ambitious prime minister. Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin would be an option, along with Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Sobyanin or the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak. Putin could create a few centers of power that would compete among themselves, thus preventing any one group from gaining ascendancy.

There is also the possibility of a system operating on the basis of a more collective leadership -- one that has popped up a few times in Russian history. This was the system that operated following Lenin's death and before Stalin gained the upper hand. Following Stalin's death, Politburo members Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Malenkov seemed more powerful figures than Nikita Khrushchev. After Khrushchev's ouster, it wasn't immediately clear whether Leonid Brezhnev or Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin was in charge.

Ultimately, however, the person holding the most important office -- party leader in the Soviet era and president today -- has such an advantage that he accrues ultimate authority in the end.

Putin is undoubtedly aware of all these historical examples, but might very well try to buck the trend anyway. The walls of the Kremlin seem to exert a strange and unusual power that deprives the occupant of the ability to view his own situation objectively just when he needs to do so most. The way in which Mikhail Gorbachev retired from office in 1991 bears witness to the fact that the Soviet Union's first and last president did not fully understand that the move marked the end of his political career. He would be unable to influence events in Russia further, much less return to power.

It is entirely possible that former President Boris Yeltsin did not understand that he would quickly become nothing more than a retiree in a golden cage and would play no further political role.

No Russian leader has yet to manage the trick pulled by Chinese leader Deng Xiapong, who continued to wield considerable power after leafing office. Putin himself has hinted that he intends to do so as well, and him trying to pull it off might be the most interesting show of all.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.