Usually at this time of year, people are obsessed with what the coming year will bring. But in Russia, the real uncertainty concerns 2008, not 2007. Indeed, one can boil Russian politics down to one issue nowadays: Will President Vladimir Putin stay on as president after 2008, despite repeatedly stating that he won’t? And if he indeed steps down, whom will he groom as his replacement? Will his chosen successor belong to one of the Kremlin’s feuding factions? Or will he pick an “outsider”?
Unless Putin maintains his stature as the country’s ultimate arbiter and decision-taker, there is a high risk of fierce infighting. In an environment where power and property are inseparable and all government institutions are emasculated, a major transfer of authority at the top may lead to violent redistribution. Thus, resolving these questions is vital for Russia’s political elites who are anxious to preserve the current perks and gain more.
As for the public, the vast majority appears resigned to accepting whatever is arranged by the leadership. Fully 45% of Russians believe that Putin will name a successor, and that this person will become the new president. Almost a quarter believe that the constitution will be changed so that Putin can have a third term. Either way, it is almost universally understood that the transfer of presidential authority is masterminded at the top and endorsed at the ballot box. The balance of forces in the legislature, too, will be determined by the Kremlin. Over the past years the configuration of the political parties and the election legislation have been repeatedly modified so as to suit the interests of the ruling elite. As a result unwanted forces have no chance in next December’s parliamentary election.
Alienated from politics, ordinary Russians are indifferent to everything that does not immediately affect them, and do not seek to hold anyone accountable. They were not bothered by the journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s recent murder or the assassination of Andrey Kozlov, first deputy chairman of the central bank, or the implications of Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning (a majority in a recent poll said he was killed by his “business partners”).
The alienation between the state and the people has a long tradition in Russia, and so does public apathy. But these days the apathy is reinforced by improved living standards. Thanks to windfall revenues from oil and gas, Russians live better than ever in the postcommunist times. Moreover, it may be argued that never in Russian history has the proportion of those who enjoy reasonably decent lifestyles been as high as it is today. As a result, people have become even more compliant in the face of increasingly autocratic governance.