Musical Chairs

How much will Russia change when Vladimir Putin hands over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev in the spring?  Putin’s chosen successor has suggested in campaign speeches this month that his regime will be different. Medvedev has eschewed the anti-Western rhetoric of his boss and promised to crack down on corruption. He has even made nice noises about non-government organizations. Putin, of course, imposed tough restrictions on NGOs, especially those of foreign origin or funded by foreign sources, a policy he adopted after seeing the crucial role NGOs played in the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine.

Last month, two government officials appeared to break ranks with Putin’s Kremlin and called for a change in the country’s strident foreign policy. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, the deputy prime minister in charge of economic policy, told an investment conference in Moscow that the government “should adjust [its] foreign policy goals in the nearest future to guarantee stable investment.” His comment was supported by Anatoly Chubais, head of state utility Unified Energy System.

So, will there be a Moscow Spring after the foregone presidential election puts Medvedev in the Kremlin?

Cato’s Andrei Illarionov warned recently that Putinism will not end with Putin relinquishing the presidency. “I don’t think so, because we are talking about the policy and philosophy of aggression against Russian people, against Russia’s neighbors, against other countries in the world,” he told the BBC’s Hard Talk program.  “It does not and should not be attributed to one particular person. This is the philosophy and ideology of a group of people, of the Corporation, of the organizations that exist in the country for a long period of time, almost for a century.”

And news out of Russia suggests that the “Corporation” – constituted predominantly by former state security officials and others linked to the so-called “power ministries” – is tightening its grip on Russia business, government agencies and the media with a host of new appointments and nominations to company boards being announced. For example, Igor Sechin, the deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin, has been nominated for the board of Rosneft, the massive state oil company. Viktor Zubkov, the prime minister, has been nominated for the board of Gazprom, and he is likely to become the next chairman of the natural gas business when Medvedev relinquishes the post on becoming the Russian President.

The list goes on and the flurry of appointments is reminiscent of the early days of Putin’s presidency when the neo-KGB state started to form. Medvedev may not come from a KGB background but the state security men will be all around him with their hands on key levers of power. Even if he is independent minded, how can he withstand the interests of the security services and of his likely Prime Minister, one Vladimir Putin?