Early gambit to fill Putin vacuum
Several men, including chess great Garry Kasparov, are vying to succeed him. But Putin may stay in office.
The effort to succeed Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting started three years early, with a gaggle of unlikely candidates lining up at the starting gate.Skip to next paragraph
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They include a disgraced former prime minister, a world chess grandmaster, the current Minister of Defense, and the pro-Kremlin speaker of Russia's parliament, the Federal Assembly. Although the Constitution bars him from seeking a third term, many experts say Mr. Putin cannot be counted out.
Russians are calling it the "2008 problem." Putin has constructed an increasingly autocratic system that depends largely on his personal control. Unless a trusted successor takes the helm, some fear that a change in leadership could provoke conflict among Russia's fractious elites.
A law passed last month by the State Duma, Russia's powerful pro-Kremlim chamber of the Federal Assembly, will create a Public Chamber, a citizens' assembly made up of representatives handpicked by Putin. Experts say it could be the launchpad for a new constitutional project that might extend the president's term or return him to office under a new system of power.
Putin, elected to a second four-year term by an electoral landslide last March, seemed unassailable just a few months ago. But a series of political shocks, including a democratic upheaval in neighboring Ukraine and an ongoing wave of protests by impoverished Russian pensioners, have unnerved the Kremlin and inspired a few opponents to position themselves as presidential candidates.
"A number of disastrous mistakes of the authorities have led to a very serious crisis of power," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The main problem is a dramatic loss of confidence in Putin by the power elites. This has plunged the system into instability, and brought new challengers into the open."
The would-be candidates for Putin's job include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, fired by the Kremlin a year ago. He has made several statements slamming Putin's authoritarian drift. And he's hinted that he might lead a democratic revolt such as the one that overturned a fraudulent election and vaulted former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko into Ukraine's presidency late last year.
"The main thing is not who it's going to be," Mr. Kasyanov said recently. "The main thing is that whoever comes to power spearheads a movement toward democratic values."
In March, Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, arguably the strongest chess player in history, quit the game to nurture what many experts say may be his own presidential run. "I've done everything in chess that I could," Mr. Kasparov said. "Now I intend to use my intellect and strategic thinking in Russian politics."
While few experts take Mr. Kasparov's challenge seriously, some say Kasyanov could be a key contender. "Kasyanov has calculated it well," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "The fact they've started campaigning now suggests the present authorities may not have three years. Something may happen soon."
Russia's largest democratic liberal party, Yabloko, which failed to win the votes needed to enter Federal Assembly in 2003, announced recently that it aims to build a broad democratic coalition to serve as a springboard for anti-Putin forces in the 2007 Duma elections and the presidential polls in 2008.