Writing in the Moscow Times, former top TV pundit Yevgeny Kiselyov (pictured, left) analyzes the 2008 Russian presidential "elections." It's not a pretty picture, as you might imagine.
For almost a week now, the talk among Moscow's political animals has been all about the government appointments announced by President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
For many in the talking head crowd, everything is perfectly clear: Putin has decided that there should be at least two candidates in play to succeed him and that they should battle it out with each other in the March 2008 presidential election. Former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, considered until recently as the "backup" candidate for the post, is now level with the previous favorite, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Ivanov has also been freed of the troublesome responsibility for goings on in the scandal-ridden army. Now, the story goes, we are down to two first deputy prime ministers, each of whom has long been one of Putin's most trusted allies and is absolutely loyal to him.
Putin, it follows, is now free of the uncomfortable need to make a choice himself. Ivanov and Medvedev will stage their imitation pre-election battle, and the voters will simply choose between them.
The term "imitation" is vital, because I am sure that the president will maintain close control over the election campaign. Kremlin insiders say, for example, that he is already making sure that Ivanov and Medvedev receive the same amount of coverage on state (that is, virtually all) television.
This, of course, is all guesswork. Putin might also tip his hand in some way in the future to let people know he wants them to vote for Ivanov (or, of course, Medvedev). Putin said at his annual marathon Kremlin news conference on Feb. 1 that, if he does indicate his own preference, he will not do so before the presidential campaign season opens.
But such statements sometimes come to mean nothing. At the same news conference Putin was asked whether we could expect his choice to be elevated to a senior post in the government ahead of the vote. Without even blinking, he answered that he was happy where everyone in the government was working at present. A mere two weeks later, we heard about the new appointments.
Maybe this was what Putin really believed on Feb. 1, but something happened over the next two weeks that changed his plans. What could have happened?
More important, perhaps, is the question: Whose advice did Putin consider when deciding to move people around? As the directly interested parties, neither Ivanov nor Medvedev likely found out until well after the decision had been made. It is unlikely that he discussed it with Igor Sechin, Kremlin deputy chief of staff and unofficial leader of the siloviki faction, as the common wisdom is that he considers neither Ivanov nor Medvedev to be of presidential timber.
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov wasn't even in Moscow and had to hurry back from Ashgabat, where he was attending the inauguration of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to preserve at least the appearance that he was consulted.
So who was in on the decision?
Putin must have some circle of influential, informal advisers -- people whose relationships with the president back years, and who are absolutely loyal, not directly involved in politics and have no presidential ambitions of their own. Some likely members of this group are Federal Guard Service General Yevgeny Murov; the head of the president's personal security service, Viktor Zolotov; St. Petersburg Mining Institute rector Vladimir Litvinenko; and St. Petersburg law professor Nikolai Yegorov. According to Kremlin insiders, Putin's press secretary, Alexei Gromov, has come to wield significant influence over his time working in the presidential administration.
And who knows how much input came from billionaire and Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich, who eight years ago played an important role in Putin's rise to the post of prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin and, ultimately, the presidency. Abramovich met with Putin at least once just before Putin left on his recent trip to Germany and the Middle East. It was immediately on his return that Putin announced the government changes. According to the official version, Putin met with Abramovich to discuss his future as Chukotka governor. Abramovich offered his resignation, but Putin refused to accept it. It is not out of the question, however, that they also discussed other matters.
Another member of this inner circle is likely to be Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin. Many believe Yakunin has his own presidential ambitions, supporting this with rumors that he was behind the purchase of the national daily Komsomolskaya Pravda -- the country's most widely read newspaper. If this is the case, the paper would represent a serious asset in an election campaign. Yet another version has it that Yakunin would only run for president if Putin asked him. According to this take, he only engineered the Komsomolskaya Pravda purchase as a favor to the Kremlin, which didn't want it to fall into anyone else's hands.
The whole story surrounding the newspaper -- a story that is still not anywhere near clear -- is a curious one, as Gazprom had long been touted as the most likely suitor. But this has changed, which has been read as bad news for Medvedev, whose fortunes are directly tied to those of Gazprom.
There have been persistent rumors that the siloviki are so opposed to Medvedev as a successor to Putin that they have scuttled a number of attempts to make him prime minister. As a result, according to those who ascribe to this version, Putin his decided to cast his lot with Ivanov.
What is interesting to me is that hardly anyone is musing whether the promotion of Cabinet chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin to the rank of deputy prime minister also makes him a prospective candidate for 2008. Naryshkin may be a virtually unknown bureaucrat, but this doesn't detract in any way from what is really important here: By being named deputy prime minister, Naryshkin has become a public political figure. It provides him with a base from which to move farther.
This, after all, is exactly the route that was taken by Putin, who was also a virtually unknown bureaucrat before being named prime minister in 1999.
Naryshkin, according to those who know him, is well educated, energetic and charming. He is a talented administrator who was able to gain strict control over the work of the Cabinet administration. Not one piece of paper or a single decision comes out of the Cabinet without his knowledge. Naryshkin's relationship with Fradkov is good, but it is clear to all that he is Putin's man. He was sent to keep an eye on Fradkov, just as in his own day Dmitry Kozak, another member of Putin's inner circle, was sent to keep an eye on then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
Who can say that the future won't see Naryshkin turn out to be the kind of consensus figure for president who will be acceptable to all of the different groups among the political elite? The battle ahead of the presidential elections is only beginning to unfold, and things aren't anything like what they appear to be on the surface.