Putin's Move Into the Shadows?

Many speculate that Vladimir Putin will try to stay in the Russian government, either by continuing as president or becoming prime minister. However, he might prefer a more “behind-the-scenes” role.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this month that he would lead the dominant pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party's campaign for the Duma this fall and hinted that he might later serve as prime minister, most observers felt the country's transition template had been laid out. Scenarios emerged for altering the constitution, redrawing the map of authority to favor a strong premiership along the lines of the German model, and handing over an enfeebled presidency to a loyal political nonentity. Putin could stay in power as long as the Unified Russia party keeps winning, which- considering the way Russian elections go-could be forever.

But does this scenario really meet the needs of Putin and his inner circle of chekisty, an elite groomed and socialized within Yury Andropov's KGB? There are several important reasons for thinking it does not.

For one thing, although Russia is dependent on heavily managed and scripted elections, it nonetheless needs those elections to maintain the veneer of a democratic state. Yet, the energy spent managing elections, the possibility of something slipping through the cracks and the increasingly harsh blows to the country's international standing each undemocratic election produces must all seem like stark negatives to the chekisty. One way to allow freer elections is to continue the ongoing process of reducing elected positions to political irrelevance by shifting real power.

Also, the Putin-as-powerful-premier scenario keeps the chekisty at the forefront of Russian political life, a position they have occupied in recent years, but not one they prefer. The KGB was arguably most powerful when it operated as a hidden "state within a state", exercising its influence through its operatives throughout society and via its monopoly on crucial information. That power was magnified precisely because it was hidden, as the revival of the chekist community after the failed August 1991 coup attempt demonstrates. As prime minister, Putin would have to take the flak if oil prices fall or some other calamity strikes, and the more powerful he is perceived to be, the more intense the blowback. His personal popularity (his approval ratings have been consistently between 60 and 70 percent for years) is an asset to be manipulated now, not a stable constant on which to base a long-term power structure-especially as the public becomes increasingly marginalized from Russian politics.

Finally, a revamped premiership doesn't pass the democracy-simulation test. That is, the West will be only slightly more satisfied with this development than it would be if Putin ignored the constitution and stayed for another term as president. Although in some regards Russia's ruling chekisty-like Andropov before them-look to China as a development model, they clearly cannot tolerate anything like Beijing's relative political isolation. Putin has already, although perhaps not with total finality, rejected the third-term scenario. He could further impersonate a democratic reformer by rejecting an offered premiership as well.

Although the third-term option and the super-premiership scenario clearly remain on the table and are absorbing the lion's share of analytical attention both in Russia and the West, another scenario also seems to be quietly evolving that could ultimately better suit Putin and the chekisty surrounding him. He could return to his roots, moving out of the presidency's limelight and into a new position within the security organs themselves, from which he could quietly manipulate on-stage political actors while also balancing the potentially conflicting interests among the chekisty and other siloviki.

The problem is finding a position from which Putin and his inner circle can control political life into the long term. Russian analysts are fond of mentioning the examples of China's Deng Xiaoping, who wielded supreme power without holding office, and the position of Supreme Leader in Iran. Even in U.S. history, the example of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is instructive, since he was able to exert vast political power for decades despite the opposition of presidents and attorneys-general, even in a system with developed checks and balances.

Early last month, a powerful new agency began work in Moscow. Ominously called the Investigative Committee and headed by a former law-school classmate of Putin's, it is formally part of the prosecutor-general's office, but has broad and undefined autonomy. The committee now controls more than 18,000 prosecutors-both civilian and military- that formerly answered to the prosecutor-general. It has jurisdiction over 60,000 ongoing criminal cases and will be responsible for investigations concerning public officials at all levels. Although analysts are divided about exactly what this development means, all agree that it has the potential to alter the balance of political power in Russia. Analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank believes the Investigative Committee is set up in such a way that it could turn into a massive power center. "If it takes over all the other investigative agencies and creates a truly unified Investigative Committee, then it will have enormous power," he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.