Operation Manager

Initial reactions to Putin’s naming Viktor Zubkov Prime Minister quickly dismissed the latter as a potential successor.  It is now emerging that perhaps this was a bit hasty.  Kommersant is reporting that Zubkov is not ruling out a run for the Presidency, though he has no intention to join a political party.  “If I achieve something as prime minister, I cannot rule out that this could happen,” Zubkov said when asked about his political aspirations.   As of now, however, Zubkov is intent on focusing on restructuring the Russian cabinet.  “I think that the structure of the government is faulty, and the administrative reform that is carried out isn’t very effective.  Structural changes will be necessary and personnel will also be looked at.”  Who exactly in the administration will be subject to scrutiny is as of now unknown.  But the issues Zubkov intends to tackle include “the development of the country, social coalitions, sport, veterans, pensioners, and the military.”  Now that the situation in Russia is stabilized, he says, “it is time to move forward.”  And if he is the one to facilitate this “moving forward” he will do it as a non-partisan.  “I am non-partisan and I will concentrate my attention on the work in the government,” he said. Spoken like a true technocrat.

And while Zubkov’s bureaucratic demeanor may make him dull, it also makes him a politically safe bet according to the Duma’s sitting parties.  The pro-Kremlin parties–United Russia, Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party–all seem to approve in unison.  Zubkov is assured Duma confirmation on Friday.  The only lone voice of dissent is the Communist Party, which promises to cast its 50 votes against Zubkov.   But such a protest vote will merely be a symbolic gesture.  Zubkov only needs 226 votes to be confirmed.  A number easily achieved by United Russia alone, which holds 300 votes. Still, United Russia’s parliamentary dominance hasn’t stopped the praise from Russia’s political establishment.   LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky stated that “I think that this will be the best government of Russia, it will be of time tested professionals.”

And just like that the previously unknown head of the Russian Financial Monitoring Office has been catapulted into the Russian political stratosphere.  Not a bad birthday president for Zubkov, who turns 66 on Saturday.  And of course speculation about Zubkov possible future as Putin’s successor has given fodder to a number of potential theories about Russia’s political future.  Namely, that the Zubkov selection is part of a grander scheme for Putin to remain puppet master after he leaves office in 2008.

But I think that the view that Putin is puppet master belies the reality of Russian elite politics.  Even though there is constant talk of clans, factions, silovki, and other nefarious, but nevertheless corporate, political forces, the road always leads back to Putin as some kind of omnipotent Tsar that is not beholden to any those groups’ interests and influence.  Reducing Russian politics to one man, as it’s been done since Kremlinology was first imagined, is such a misnomer that it verges on naivety.   If the Russian elite is indeed a network of clans, then even the most powerful individuals are set with the task of juggling, adjudicating, and mediating those clans’ often disparate interests.

And if Zubkov indeed becomes a presidential “dark horse,” there might lie the genius of choosing him rather than one of the presidential front runners, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitiri Medvedev.  The latter two are big fishes in the pond, who, without a doubt, have their own khvosty (tails) of patrons and clients trailing behind them.  Having one of them lead the show will only tip the balance in favor of one faction over another.  But naming an technocratic “outsider” like Zubkov might be the perfect solution to maintaining a delicate balance.  After all, the Russian elite has class and political interests to maintain, and creating a situation that could spill into elite civil war is bad for everyone’s business.  What a better way to keep the juices of elite prosperity flowing than to appoint someone as faceless, uninspiring, and technocratic as Putin was when he was named Prime Minister in 1999?  Because if there is any lesson that should be learned from Putin’s tenure as President, it’s that his power stems from his ability to keep the forces balanced; to let the elite have their cake and eat it too.  So in the end perhaps the search of a “successor” is really about finding the right manager.