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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Kremlin's Coming Succession Crisis

The Moscow Times' Alexei Bayer explains how the Kremlin has utterly destroyed even its own idea of how Russia should be governed. Have things really gotten so psychotic in Russia, and so fast, that it's rational for Bayer to speculate that Ramzan Kadyrov, puppet ruler of Chechnya, could become the next "president" of Russia. You bet they have. People laughed when Yeltsin said Putin would be the next "president," but it happened, and now he has a 70%+ approval rating. They dismissed the speculation of some that Alexander Lukashenko, maniacal dicator of Belarus, could take over the reins of power as part of a Russo-Belarus union. But they didn't laugh. If Putin didn't give the order that killed Anna Politkovskaya, then Kadyrov sure did. Could he be the next ruler of Russia? Who would stop him? The same person who stopped Putin?

The repression of Georgians and the resumption of contract killings should remove any doubts about the nature of today's Russia. It is not a stable "vertical of power," but an opaque and shifting bureaucratic morass.

This reality makes a mockery of any ideas of an orderly transfer of power in 2008, when President Vladimir Putin maintains he will step down. It leaves the two heirs apparent, First Deputy Pime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, dangerously exposed.

Even though Russia's democracy in the 1990s was undoubtedly flawed, it had some genuine political pluralism. Individuals outside the Kremlin wielded power and authority, based on wealth, regional connections or even voter support.

All of this has been stomped out. Today, the president has a monopoly on power -- so much so that his whims, peeves and dislikes instantly become national policy. Presumed successors can't accumulate any power of their own without it becoming a personal affront to Putin. While the two sitting ducks share the limelight, the real contestants jockey for position in the shadows of Putin's throne.

Unlike the Soviet Union, where these power struggles occurred within the framework of the Communist Party, Putin's system has shoddy institutional underpinnings. The United Russia party was an afterthought, created to service existing arrangements. Its manifesto is to support the president, or rather Putin personally. Russia's elites are a web of loose alliances in which ultimately it's every man for himself.

The succession prize will likely go to a dark horse -- someone you would least expect to win. If forced to bet, I would lay my money on Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

True, many Russians abhor the Chechens and fear Kadyrov. This, however, has never been an impediment to ruling Russia -- going back to the Varangian Rus principalities of the 9th century. The Russian yearning for a strong hand has always trumped mere ethnic prejudice. Russia's most respected monarch was Catherine the Great, a German. The most adored Soviet leader -- and the most hated as well -- was a "person of a Caucasus nationality," Josef Stalin.

Kadyrov is the only politician in Russia with an independent power base. He commands a battle-hardened militia that might be the strongest fighting force in the country. He has influence in the Kremlin, which relies on him for the pacification of Chechnya and has given him more autonomy than previous "separatist" Chechen leaders. September's violent backlash against Chechens in Karelia has shown how widespread the diaspora has become.

In fact, the murder on Oct. 7 of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was highly critical of the government, might be a sign that someone in Moscow also sees Kadyrov as a contender. Politovskaya certainly wasn't killed because of her investigative reporting. In Russia as in the United States today's docile voters ignore the lies, corruption and outright crimes committed by their leaders. Back in 1994, Russian generals could still fear public exposure of their thievery by reporter Dmitry Kholodov, for which he was murdered. They couldn't care less about it now.

Needless to say, Politkovskaya's actual murderers will never be brought to justice. But some Chechens might get arrested for it -- as was the case with murdered U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov. They may implicate Kadyrov -- whose use of torture in Chechnya Politkovskaya was investigating -- but only if he gets too big for his breeches.

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