No wonder Vladimir Putin and George Bush are such fast friends. They speak the same language: Gibberish! The Moscow Times reports on some genuinely scary, genuinely crazy babbling from the "president" of Russia, who seems to have lost touch with reality in a classic neo-Soviet manner. First he jokes about rape in front of a diplomatic delegation, the about the basic principles of democracy, and now he jokes about presidential succession. Or even worse, maybe he's serious. Either way, he's a madman, pure and simple.
President Vladimir Putin said five people stood a real chance of succeeding him and identified three of them as Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, said a U.S. professor who spoke with Putin. Putin, however, did not mention acting First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov or Dmitry Medvedev until he was prodded on the sidelines of a meeting with foreign experts, said the professor, Marshall Goldman of Harvard.
Putin spoke during a visit Friday with about 40 academics and journalists at the presidential retreat in Sochi. During the three-hour meeting, the president also reiterated that he would remain in politics after his term ends next year, and he said he had not decided whether he would run for president in 2012, attendees said. Putin's comments about the five candidates were his clearest signal yet about the shape of March's presidential election. He mentioned Zubkov during a question-and-answer session with the group. Goldman said he approached Putin later and asked him for more information.
"I asked who were the five. That's where it was very funny," he said by telephone. Putin named Yavlinsky and Zyuganov, he said. "Then I said, 'What about Ivanov?' and he said, 'Yeah, yeah, Ivanov too,'" Goldman said. "But he did not mention Ivanov or Medvedev [at first]. ... It was a bit strange."
Putin told the entire group that Zubkov had every right to run for president. "Zubkov, like any Russian citizen, can run for the presidency," Putin said in remarks shown on state television. "Zubkov said he did not rule out running. I think that was a calm and balanced answer. "Now, at least five people have been named who could really stake their claim to be elected president in March 2008. Well, if another real candidate appears, then the Russian people will be able to choose among several people," he said.
Zubkov, a previously obscure technocrat who was confirmed as prime minister Friday, said earlier in the week that he could not rule out a run for president. He is the first ally of Putin to publicly express interest in running. Political analysts said Zubkov would not have dared to make the suggestion without Putin's approval. Some of them speculated that this might be a Kremlin decoy to cloud further the succession strategy.
Yavlinsky's spokeswoman said Sunday that she had heard that Putin had named Yavlinsky but dismissed the information as "a joke."
"If Putin had really named Yavlinsky among the five, a big scandal would have been created," said the spokeswoman, Yevgenia Dillendorf.
Communist officials could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.
Putin -- possibly worried about accusations of authoritarianism -- might be backing away from an earlier promise to name a preferred successor and will offer voters a choice of three or four of his loyalists, said Sergei Mikheyev, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. "And it is possible that after eight years of an active and relatively young Putin, Russia's cautious voters would prefer the aged and conservative Zubkov over the younger and dynamic Medvedev and Ivanov," said Dmitry Orlov, an analyst with the Agency for Political and Economic Communications. "Dispersing support behind these various candidates would be rational for Putin at the moment."
The uncertainty over Putin's preferred successor may become clearer after United Russia holds a conference Oct. 2 to finalize its federal ticket in the upcoming State Duma elections, said Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Whoever is there with [party leader Boris] Gryzlov and [acting Emergency Situations Minister Sergei] Shoigu could claim more legitimacy than others as a future Russian president," she said.
Zubkov said Thursday that he would not join any party. The law, however, does not preclude him from running on a party ticket in the Duma elections. With his promotion, Zubkov had already become the front-runner, surpassing Ivanov and Medvedev, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who tracks Kremlin politics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Putin lavished praise on Zubkov at the Sochi meeting, attendees said. "It was a real boost for this guy," Goldman said. "He went through a long list of things: how well organized he was, he brought results. It was clear he was very much taken with him." Putin spoke of how Zubkov did not play games, said Andrew Kuchin, Russia director with the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He doesn't want anyone who will play around politically. He is entirely his man," Kuchin said. But Kuchin said he had not taken Putin's comments as an endorsement of Zubkov. "I thought he pretty much dismissed that when he said, 'Why yes, Zubkov can run for the presidency like any other citizen of the Russian Federation,'" he said.
Ivanov also left a good impression on the visitors, whom he met late Wednesday in Moscow. "He comes across as very confident, in some ways as more confident than Putin," Goldman said. "The Ivanov meeting was more interesting [than Putin's]," Kuchin said. "He put on a terrific show, the performance of a world-class political leader. ... He is probably the most likely candidate as president," he said.
Putin emphasized the need for a strong successor at his meeting. "That's not why I have sweated for all these years, to give Russia to a weak president," he said, Kommersant reported Saturday. Putin also made it clear that he planned to remain politically active after he stepped down. Asked what role he would play, he said, "I will have to agree with the next president," said Alexander Rahr, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations who attended the meeting. He left open the door to whether he might run for president in 2012. Asked whether he wanted to return, he replied: "I don't know. Inside I have not decided. It is difficult to predict," Goldman said.
The only time Putin showed a flash of annoyance was when he was asked about Russia's moratorium on the death penalty, Goldman said. Putin said talk about the death penalty only drew support for the Communists, who are calling for its return. "It's a populist issue, but it is not good for the country to have the death penalty," Putin was quoted by Goldman as saying.
The meeting did not end without a wry joke by Putin, participants said. In response to a question about cronyism in state business, Putin said the government would fight corruption and told the following anecdote: A general is asked, "Can your children become generals?"
"Yes, they can," said the general.
"Can they become marshals?"
"No," he answered.
"Because marshals have children too."