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Monday, September 17, 2007

Zaxi Blog on Zubkov

Zaxi blog considers the possibility that Viktor Zubkov is Putin's darling:

A curious anecdote has made the rounds in Moscow that paints a grim picture for Sergei Ivanov – aka Russia’s next president until last week.

It seems that pretty much everyone in the Kremlin told Ivanov how he was about to be named prime minister. But somehow Viktor Zubkov was tapped instead and now the US State Department has to look up what that word “sovkhoz” means again.

The Kremlin’s political pointman Vladislav Surkov – author of the “sovereign democracy” paradox and more usefully charged with telling United Russia how to vote – was the first to start spreading the cheer. He told his deputy Vitaly Ivanov to leak out that Vladimir Putin was about to sign the official decree. He even described how it would look: Putin would dramatically appear live on television a la Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999. Boris begot Russia Vladimir and now Vladimir was to beget Sergei.

Vedomosti gloriously ran with the news – it never reported the television appearance bit – on the same day Putin chuckled and appointed a 66-year-old Communist collective farms boss who in 2004 prompted a brief run on the banks while acting as chief of “financial intelligence.”

Ivanov seemed nonplussed. He called Zubkov a “man who works without making noise or raising dust” – a fine observation about someone who stealthily steals your job. Ivanov also said Putin never advised him about the government changes. And this is where things get interesting.

The point about the prime minister’s post is that Ivanov does not personally need it to become president in March. He remains the most popular politician after Putin and had enough state media support this year to block coverage of most other news. His summer trip though Siberian factories alone led broadcasts for a week.

zaxi is also fairly confident that Ivanov had pretty much assumed that he will be president. He has given nationally aired press conferences outlining his views – same as Putin’s only more toxic when it comes to Western affairs – and would look foolish for putting so much effort into it were he not to run and win.

Putin all but anointed Ivanov on August 30 when he said the next president “should indeed be a figure well-known to voters.” This seemed to put a bullet in the head of any of the dark-horse Kremlin candidates rumored to be waiting for the president’s kiss on the cheek. It also left Ivanov with the simple challenge of Dmitry Medvedev – the Gazprom chairman and fellow first deputy prime minister who somehow inherited the liberal tag. Keeping Medvedev out of the prime minister’s chair was Ivanov’s one and only campaign item.

So what to make of Ivanov’s public and humiliating jilt? The all-too-obvious: Putin is going nowhere.

Any thought the appointment only kept Ivanov’s real rivals at bay vanished the morning Zubkov woke up with his new job title. Literally the first question posed to the man few could identify by name in a police lineup was whether he would run for president. “If I accomplish something as prime minister then I do not exclude that I will.” And the next day Putin agreed that Zubkov “gave the right answer.”

The question remains why Surkov would blow up Ivanov’s balloon only for Putin to pop it. Neither of the evident answers adds grace to Ivanov’s fall.

One is that Surkov – who is believed to back Ivanov’s presidential bid – was unsuccessfully trying to push his man on Putin and lock out Medvedev and the rest for good. This is the “very bad for Ivanov” option: it means he does not have Putin’s trust yet.

The other is that Surkov was simply spreading misinformation. This is the “even worse for Ivanov” option: it means the Kremlin wanted to demean Ivanov and send him a clear message that he was acting too presidential.

Both boil down to Putin’s jealous inability to cede any power and evident pleasure at watching his underlings scramble while hysterically trying to figure out whom to invest their pilfered profits with for the next term.

So Zubkov’s emergence is backed by solid Politburo logic. He is old. His political life depends on Putin. And he knows a lot about how the elite launders cash.

This concoction makes Zubkov into a viable stand-in for Putin until his return to the presidency for another four to 14 years – depending on how the Constitution is corrected for him. One former Kremlin adviser told the BBC that Zubkov knows more about Russians’ oversees accounts than any other person in government. The inference is that Zubkov will act as Putin’s watchman over the Kremlin’s competing business clans. Any false move by Rosneft or Gazprom will make the Yukos saga look like a stage rehearsal.

The former Kremlin adviser was actually talking about the period until Putin’s departure in March. But there no reason why Zubkov could not keep the boys in line for a few extra years as president until new elections are called once he claims fatigue.

Ivanov may yet emerge as president. But this debacle should remind him where the real power rests. Zubkov will be drafting the government Ivanov has to make due with should Putin smile on his old friend again. Ivanov will be shackled by a prime minister who answers to the old president and knows the combination number to the Kremlin’s Cyprus safety deposit box. And Ivanov – who was never really a part of any existing Kremlin alliance – will be isolated like few heads of state in the world.

Perhaps Ivanov’s tragic flaw was inherent: he was too much of a Putin clone. Putin could have justifiably feared that Russians would see no reason to go back to the old version of the new Putin.

Ivanov may have been too articulate and energetic to serve as Russian president.

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