Kremlin Musical Chairs

It’s that time again – Russia’s pre-election season when prime ministers are changed as in a game of musical chairs. The last one seated, it is supposed, will become Russia’s next president.

As the end of his rule approached, Boris Yeltsin went through at least a half-dozen prime ministers, looking for the one who would ensure the security not only of Russia’s new democracy and market economy, but also of his “family” and the wealth that it had accumulated during his rule. The last man seated then was, of course, Vladimir Putin.

Now it is Putin’s turn to call the tune, dismissing Mikhail Fradkov and dissolving the government that had served him throughout his second term in order to prepare for the parliamentary elections looming in December and the presidential ballot in March 2008. In 1999, Yeltsin picked Putin, who was then the little-known head of the FSB (formerly the KGB). Putin chose to elevate the equally mysterious Victor Zubkov, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (also known as the “finance espionage” agency).

Despite that similarity, the reasoning behind these choices appears to be somewhat different. Yeltsin’s choice of Putin – encouraged, ironically, by Boris Berezovsky, the prominent Russian oligarch and Yeltsin advisor who is now exiled in London as Putin’s mortal enemy – was based on his belief that the quiet apparatchik, even if a former KGB spy, was a democrat at heart. After all, Putin had been a protegé of Anatoly Sobchak, the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg as communism collapsed.