A Day for Resignations

The resignations of top officials in Russia and Japan put into question the future of democracy in their respective countries.

As expected, six months prior to Russia's 2008 presidential elections, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has resigned his position. Fradkov, a technocratic figure who was expected to keep the government's trains running on time, was never expected to succeed Vladimir Putin as president of the country, and it was widely expected that he would be asked to step down in order to allow a possible presidential successor to Putin to, in effect, be anointed.

Usually when a prime minister resigns, there is an overall shakeup in the cabinet. This is why a number of Moscow sources are predicting that we will see movement around a number of key figures-the two deputy prime ministers and "front-runners" for 2008-Sergei Ivanov and Dimitri Medvedev; another deputy prime minister, Sergei Naryshkin; the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin; and the head of the powerful defense conglomerate Rosoboronexport. Of particular interest will be whether or not the current Minister for Natural Resources, Yuri Trutnev, will step down-since his ministry is the key in terms of awarding lucrative mining and exploration licenses and will be in charge of implementing the legislation restricting foreign ownership of and participation in Russia's natural resource sectors.

Given constant rumors that one of the "bargains" for ensuring a smooth succession in 2008 is the reconfiguration of the government to award key ministries to different political and economic groupings in advance of the presidential elections, with the Cabinet then in essence being "frozen" for the new president, at least until 2010, the question of presidential succession may be on the verge of being resolved.

Soon after it emerged that Vladimir Putin has nominated Viktor Zubkov, head of the agency that investigates financial crimes, to serve as prime minister.

It's difficult to see Zubkov as being the designated "heir" to become president. It is important to note that if one looks at the last years of the second term of the Yeltsin Administration, a series of prime ministers were appointed, in part to keep the political establishment off balance.

This also gives some "breathing room" if the overall succession issue has not been settled by having another technocratic prime minister in place for the next several months, while negotiations would continue over how power would be distributed. Remember, the lesson many in the Russian elite learned from the Orange Revolution of 2004 in Ukraine was that when the elite is divided and cannot reach consensus, the system becomes destabilized.

I assume many would consider Zubkov part of the extended "Petersburg" group, given that he is a 1965 graduate of the Leningrad Agricultural Institute and worked for many years in different positions in the Leningrad Communist Party apparatus. He served in the St. Petersburg mayoral administration (deputy chair of the external affairs committee) when Putin was vice-mayor under Anatoly Sobchak. After leaving the mayor's administration in 1993 he moved over to the Tax Inspectorate and has held various positions for both the St Petersburg region, the Northwest region and in the federal government, and held cabinet-level rank in the government under both Prime Minister Kasyanov and then Prime Minister Fradkov.

Those who look for increasing family ties as a sign of the development of a new political oligarchy might take note of the fact that Zubkov's daughter is married to the current defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also handed in his resignation today, conceding defeat after the electoral losses suffered by the Liberal Democrats back in July. Current LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso will succeed him.

Abe's departure means that Japan's course toward "normalization"-being able to exercise the full range of military options available to other countries that are Japan's peers-is still uncertain. Abe's departure may create conditions for the Japanese Diet (Kokkai) to pass legislation extending the ability of Japan's navy to take part in resupply/refueling operations in the Indian Ocean in support of ongoing operations in Afghanistan-something that was being held up by the opposition.

But Abe's departure means that it is unlikely that his successors as prime minister will be as forceful as he was in articulating a 21st century path for Japan's "normalization" and will again raise concerns about the apparent lack of stability in terms of producing prime ministers that can serve for long terms.