Does This Mystery Matter?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked his prime minister last week and replaced him with one Viktor Zubkov, an obscure official never before mentioned as a potential leader. Wondering why? Here are a few of the rumors in circulation:

Because Zubkov is completely unimportant, Putin intends to make him the next president of Russia, a possibility that Zubkov has not denied: After all, the presidential election is not until March 2008, leaving plenty of time for the Kremlin-controlled media to introduce Zubkov to the Russian public. (Putin’s motive? Zubkov can keep the Kremlin office chair warm so that Putin can return in 2012. The Russian constitution prohibits a third consecutive presidential term but not, apparently, a nonconsecutive third term.)

Because Zubkov is actually extremely important — he is, in the words of Russia expert Anders Aslund, the “spider in the web” who knows the financial secrets of Putin’s inner circle — he will remain prime minister while Putin, possibly following declaration of a national military emergency, remains in office. (The evidence? The otherwise inexplicable Russian celebrations of the 125th anniversary of the birth of Franklin Roosevelt, the American president who stayed on for a third and then fourth presidential term because of a national military emergency.)

Because Zubkov doesn’t matter either way, Putin has pushed him to prominence while trying to make up his mind about who the real candidate should be. (The alternatives? There are dozens, including former defense minister Sergei Ivanov, who apparently tells all and sundry that he has it in the bag already.)

Still others hold that Zubkov arrived in Moscow by flying saucer and regularly communicates with little green men (just kidding). But the bottom line is that no one really knows why Zubkov was appointed, except for Putin himself. And he isn’t telling.

All of which goes a long way toward confirming something I’ve maintained for some time: that the identity of the next president of Russia doesn’t actually matter. Though a lot of analytical effort has already been wasted on careful preelectoral scrutiny of the potential candidates, their views, alleged pragmatism or alleged chauvinism are much less important than the nature of the coming presidential selection process.

If Zubkov (or someone else) becomes president after an orchestrated media campaign, falsified elections and Putin’s constant presence in the background, then we’ll know that the winner of the election really is a placeholder. If Zubkov (or someone else) manages to garner some genuine support among voters and within the Kremlin, then we’ll know to take his views seriously. If Putin remains president — well, we’ll know what that means, too. Already, the fact that no one outside the Kremlin’s inner sanctum has any idea what the succession will look like is a bad sign. It’s hard to talk about the rule of law in a country where power changes hands in such a thoroughly arbitrary manner.

By the same token, the nature of the presidential campaign will also reveal much more about the state of contemporary Russian political thinking than the biography of the winner. We will learn, for example, whether the Kremlin intends to go on paying lip service to democracy or if it intends soon to abandon the charade altogether. The frequency with which rules are broken; the language used about the Kremlin-ordained candidate and his opponents; the number of times said opponents are allowed to appear on television — all of this will explain more about Russia’s future political orientation than any analysis of the candidate’s political beliefs, let alone his taste in after-dinner drinks.

This last point is important because it’s a mistake that has been made before. In the bad old days, a new Soviet general secretary’s preference for whiskey over vodka was invariably taken as a sign that he was more “pro-Western” than his predecessors. More recently, the current American president seemed to read much into the fact that his Russian counterpart wore a cross around his neck during their first meeting — one of the factors that led President Bush to look into Putin’s eyes and infamously find him “straightforward and trustworthy.”

Zubkov may turn out to be trustworthy, or he may turn out to be unreliable. He may be important; he may be unimportant. He may or may not become president. But if he does, I hope his American counterpart won’t try to be his best friend right away. Whether the next president is called Zubkov, Ivanov or Putin, he’ll still be the product of a political system that remains mystifyingly opaque, and we shouldn’t forget it.

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