Cablegate: Moscow's Rumormill On Succession

DE RUEHMO #1187/01 1191419
P 281419Z APR 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MOSCOW 001187



E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/25/2018

REF: 2007 MOSCOW 05153

Classified By: CDA Daniel Russell. Reason: 1.4 (d).


1. (C) Putin's actions since the March elections have
heightened political uncertainty about the shape of the
Medvedev-Putin tandem. Lacking hard information, everything
from Putin's decision to head United Russia to administrative
changes at the White House is seen by the chattering class
through the prism of the "succession question" - Putin's
dilemma of leaving office without losing influence. Within
the commentariat, two general lines have emerged. The
"hand-off scenario" sees Putin marshaling control to protect
his successor as regent before handing off the torch. The
second, "Putin triumphant," scenario predicts a power shift
from the Kremlin to the White House. Between the two are
many variations, each with expectations of some conflict
between Medvedev and Putin. In any case, Putin's tactical
wiles have expanded his political options but have also
deepened uncertainty about his intentions. End summary.

A Season of Elite Uncertainty

2. (C) Moscow is simmering with expectation about the coming
transition as evidenced by the wide range of theories,
speculation, and rumors (but no hard information) that our
contacts are circulating. The center of the debate remains:
how does a healthy, young, and popular politician like Putin
retain influence after leaving the Kremlin in a system that
accrues a preponderance of influence to the presidency (ref
a). His decision to head, but not join, United Russia;
warnings about the need to clean out that party; and the
Kremlin's preference for secrecy about cadre changes have
reinvigorated debate about the Medvedev-Putin tandem and
deepened the uncertainty among the elite about the shape of
things to come. Coupled with the natural nervousness about a
change in administration (with reports that ministers and
other top officials are afraid to travel out of concern of
being "out of touch" during cadre selection), the tempo of
rumor-mongering and speculation has increased exponentially.

3. (C) Despite their differences on a host of issues, our
contacts all expected competition within the elite to
increase. They predicted that struggles could affect the
development of relations between Medvedev and Putin,
notwithstanding what appears to be their shared values and
close personal ties. Already, we have seen evidence that
some within the elite are taking advantage of perceived
weakness during the transition to pursue their agendas:
Mikhail Fridman's moves against TNK-BP and Sergey Chemezov's
accelerated campaign to draw more state assets into

4. (C) Elite disquiet stems as well from fears about
impending changes in government cadres at the central and
regional level. xxxxx accentuated Putin's call to reform United
Russia, predicting a personnel shake-up that mysteriously
would "change everything" yet would not involve the emergence
of new faces in the leadership ranks. He expressed concern
that United Russia's "monopoly of the political process"
could be broken by splits within the party, although he did
not consider the new "clubs" within the party as posing a
danger in that regard. xxxxx also told us that a shake-up
of the regional elite was already under way, with the
replacement of the Irkutsk governor and the "voluntary"
resignation of the Starvopol governor. Others have likewise
predicted changes in the cadre ranks, but envision Putin
positioning Medvedev to clean house, be it to remove
Yeltsin-era warhorses like Moscow Mayor Luzhkov or Tatarstan
President Shaymiyev xxxxx or remove troublesome siloviki hetmen xxxxx.

5. (C) xxxxx argued that the
general uncertainty among the political elite flows from
Putin's own indecisiveness. Rather than following a
pre-ordained strategy, xxxxx described Putin as following
a path of tactical decision, from the selection of Medvedev
as successor to the snap United Russia congress April 21-22
where Putin agreed to take the helm. Moreover, xxxxx
posits that because Putin has not ruled out a return to the
Presidency, he faces the constraints of wanting to preserve
the power of the presidency, even as he seeks insurance

Moscow 00001187 002 of 003

against the possibility that Medvedev could use that power
against him. xxxxx agreed, speculating that Putin is seeking
insurance against Medvedev in the coming months. Although
xxxxx was largely dismissive of Medvedev, considering him
less a politician than an inexperienced administrator, he
still sees risk to Putin as he takes over as Premier - an
institutionally weaker position, with responsibility for
unpopular decisions.

6. (C) There are others, however, who describe Putin's
decisions as creating the foundation for a transition to a
more institution-based political system. An article in
xxxxx argued that the creation of a second center of power in the
White House mitigates the risk of another round of
re-distributing property or a change in the general course
for the country. xxxxx told
us that Medvedev has no recourse but to tap public support
for his putatively more liberal agenda, much as Mikhail
Gorbachev did in his struggle with the more conservative
elements of the then Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In
the long run, xxxxx sees the potential for an evolution
away from the inter-clan struggles to a public competition of

The Party of Putin

7. (C) Indicative of the uncertainty in Moscow, our
interlocutors discussed a wide range of theories about
Putin's decision to accept the United Russia leadership. As
an advocate of the "Putin Triumphant" scenario,
xxxxx saw Putin maneuvering the Duma, United
Russia, and the regional elite to check the predominate
influence that Medvedev will enjoy thanks to the
constitution's bias in favor of the presidency. xxxxx
explained his bid to head United Russia as a means to balance
Medvedev's authority to appoint governors, by giving Putin
control over the regional legislatures, whose approval is
required before a gubernatorial candidate can take office.
Moreover, xxxxx argued that by heading United Russia, Putin
will be able to dominate the Duma and Federation Council and
thus control the passage of legislation.

8. (C) xxxxx also saw Putin's leadership of the
party as providing the basis for constraining Medvedev's
ability to remove him from the premiership. xxxxx alleged that
PA Head Sergey Sobyanin was working on legislation that would
constrain the President's ability to dismiss the Premier,
although she offered no information about how this could be
done without altering the constitution, which Putin has
repeatedly stated he will not do. In their xxxxx envisioned a similar motive, but a different
tactic in Putin's decision. By controlling the majority
party in the Duma, Putin insures that any move to remove him
from the Premiership results in a political crisis. (The
United Russia-controlled Duma could exercise its
constitutional prerogative and refuse to approve Medvedev's
choice for a replacement premier, leading to new elections
and potential stalemate.)

9. (C) Not all of our contacts shared the view that Putin's
recent moves represented a shifting of the balance of
influence. xxxxx dismissed Putin's move to head United
Russia as sign of his desperation, vice a strong tactical
move to check Medvedev. xxxxx characterized United Russia as
an amalgamation of careerists and bureaucrats, which is loyal
to whoever holds power. Comments by xxxxx that United
Russia is guided by self-interest, without any common values,
appear to support xxxxx assertions. xxxxx called Putin's
decision to take the party lead a mistake, seeing the
processes underway now, including the sensational article
about his marriage plans to gymnast-turned-Duma deputy Alina
Kabayeva, as part of the inevitable "de-mystification" of the
soon to be former president.

A New Kind of Premiership

10. (C) Against the backdrop of Putin's decision to head
United Russia, news about the government structural and
personnel changes have heightened speculation about a
metamorphosis of the Premiership. Press reports last week
told of a new paradigm in which virtually all responsibility
outside of defense, security, and the protection of societal
order that lay with the government (and ultimately the
Premier) would be pushed down to the ministries. Initial
reactions interpreted this as shaping a new order in the
government, in which the Premier sets the "strategic"

Moscow 00001187 003 of 003

direction and holds the expected new stratum of technocratic
Deputy Premiers to account for the actions of the ministries.
As such, proponents of this view argued that Putin is hoping
that he can stand above the fray, blaming his subordinate
"scapegoats" for any potential government failings or
missteps. Others, however, see this less as a result of
grand politics and more of a sensible re-alignment of duties
- "housecleaning" before Putin takes office.

11. (SBU) There has also been considerable speculation about
a reworking of the relationships between the President, the
Premier, and the governors. The Kremlin and Minister for
Regional Development Kozak took quick action to squash rumors
floated in the business newspaper Vedemosti early this month
that control over the regional plenipotentiaries (polpreds)
would shift to the government, although Kozak but did not
rule out future changes in the role and jurisdiction of the
polpreds. xxxxx noted that changing the polpreds may not
be necessary, since the government has responsibility for
assessing the "effectiveness" of regional leaders and thus
could shape the president's approach to gubernatorial


12. (C) The "succession question" continues to dominate the
Russian political scene, despite the remarkable changes that
have taken place over the past six months. Putin has proven
his ability to reshape the landscape and create his own
opportunities by accepting the Premiership under Medvedev as
well as the mantle of "party leader" for United Russia,
creating what some see as a potential alternative power
center in the White House. Nevertheless, his success in
spinning out alternatives for himself has served to prolong
the agony of the "succession question" and fostered
uncertainty among the elite. Uncertainty multiplies the risk
of conflict between the elite clans over influence. Putin's
problem can be seen as a Hobbesian security dilemma - the
greater his personal security, the less security there is for
the other players, including his chosen successor Medvedev.

© Scoop Media

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