The main aim of Hugo Chávez's visit to Moscow was to learn who would succeed Putin, or so I was informed by a member of the Venezuelan delegation. Well, the Comandante is not the only one who is bothering his head over it – many Russian citizens are keen to know the outcome of the "Successor" operation. But our leader remains conspicuously inarticulate on the matter, causing panic among several interest groups.
I enquired how Chávez reckoned to get the puzzle solved. The answer was: "Say, during the reception ceremony at the Kremlin, President Putin might introduce one of his close associates to Chávez: please meet future President so-and-so". "I am afraid I'll have to disappoint you," I replied, "President Putin will choose a different occasion."
Should Putin have unveiled the mystery of the new Russian president not to his baffled bureaucrats but to Hugo Chávez, it would have been a scandal of headline proportions. But the point is, Putin himself doesn't have the name, at least for the time being.
Chávez returned from Russia knowing little more than he knew before. If he wanted a better understanding of our political process, he should have studied the rumours circulating in the capital. They aren't necessarily accurate, but they give a feel for what's afoot.
For quite a few months stories circulated about Putin changing the constitution in order to run for a third term. Many were expecting something terrible to happen before the announcement – a massive terrorist attack, a war with Georgia, a border conflict in Ukraine – any of which events could have been used as a pretext for changing the rules. The deaths of Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Litvinenko were interpreted in the same way. Nobody wanted to kill them, or specifically them. But somebody important (yet not too important) had to be killed to heat up the situation. As prominent journalist Akram Murtazayev stated, "they first decided to kill somebody, then chose the time, place and method, and finally started looking for a target".
True or not, it didn't work. And now we are waiting for the successor. Two candidates have been announced – Dmitriy Medvedev and Sergey Ivanov – but not many people believe they are genuine contenders. Then one of the top figures in the Kremlin administration suddenly hinted there was a third guy. He is somewhere in hiding. He will materialize later. But way beyond his whereabouts, we should worry about the manner of events that will accompany his arrival. Putin arrived with the war in Chechnya in full cry and apartment homes being blown up. Not many are angling for a repeat.
In the end, a third term for Putin would be all right for everyone but for Putin himself. He would rather leave office preserving his good name and approval rating than dig himself in at the Kremlin waiting for new troubles to arise. For they will arise and Putin knows it, as we all do. And the president would prefer to leave them to his successor.
The problem is that Vladimir Putin is the only official in Russia who has real authority – or at least popularity – at the national level. No other bureaucrat can pretend to match up to the incumbent president in terms of popular support. Resentment against all bureaucrats is the dominant feeling.
If Putin's popularity were derivative of his policymaking, this would simplify the task for his successor, who would win over the Russians by simply integrating Putin's priorities into the new agenda. Alas, Putin's general popularity has served as a cover for the unpopular political strategy implemented by the government. The government is seen as responsible for all the weak spots, like housing and public utilities reform, cash-for-benefits, the commercialization of education, public health and transport services, while Putin, who actually appointed all the ministers, is held up as "guarantor of the constitution". As guarantor, the president has prospered, while the unfortunate cabinet goes about its business to general disapproval.
But should we decapitate this construct, all would go to pieces. No one can manage the situation as well as Putin. He enjoys the exclusive precedent of having entered the Russian political scene under emergency conditions and to be leaving it in a more or less stable situation – that is what people love him for. The people's consciousness always perceives a bonanza period as being directly connected to the good leader. And to an extent they are right. But the new leader will inevitably bring about a new climate.
And as the climate alters, Putin is ready to cede his place in the Kremlin to a person doomed to take the reins of a more or less prosperous country, only to hand it over in a crisis. It is not exactly the flow of petro-dollars that will one day run dry, or the real-estate market that will melt down, or any other fiscal cataclysm that will let us down, but the social tensions that are aggravated by economic growth.
It is only in liberal economic theory books that output growth automatically breeds social prosperity. In practice, liberal economic laws have different implications: the way the state propaganda publicly represents the results of economic growth defines how society changes. The Putin era was the time of social change – it brought about the new social order and thus laid down the basis of future contradictions and new social conflicts. Conflicts for the era after Putin.
So now the bureaucrats are doing their utmost to extend Putin's term of office, hoping this will save them from the coming cataclysms. But the president, being smart enough to grasp that his presence in the Kremlin won't avert the crisis, would rather watch the situation from afar. Rumours about a third term are still spread by desperate bureaucrats – but we had better believe Putin himself. He said that he wanted to go. And this seems to be the only truth we know about him.
In the final reckoning, the name of the successor doesn't tell us much. And though the clocks are ticking, and we will soon learn the name, history won't change its course. Putin's political experience prompts him that there's little to be done. So the president is in no rush to name his successor. Unlike the team he'll leave behind, he has nothing to lose.