Ok, I'm breaking my usual rules twice in as many weeks. But when you get interesting news like this, it's hard to resist. By now everyone is aware that "Putin's Plan" has been (at least partially) revealed: Putin will head up the United Russia party list in the December 2007 Duma Elections and will likely be appointed Prime Minister by his successor, who is assumed to be the current Prime Minister, Zubkov.
Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow relayed an interesting analysis from an expert on a panel he attended in his post on the subject:
In any event, it's amazing how quickly the March 2008 presidential elections have come to seem irrelevant. Today I attended a panel discussion which was not focused on the presidential succession question, but the news had to be discussed. One of the participants, a leading scholar of Russian politics visiting from Moscow, suggested that this must have been the first discussion in DC of the new reality of Russian politics. She noted that all of the discussion about successors could be forgotten, and that the power will be in the Prime Minister's office once Putin moves there.
According to her, Putin has been building a parallel power structure for some time and will use it to suck the air out of the vertical of power which was one of the main accomplishments of his time in office. Putin will inevitably have to undermine the presidency if he wishes to remain preeminent on the Russian political scene.
I would disagree with this analysis on a couple of points. While the immediate question seems to be settled on the surface(understanding, of course, that he could always change his mind), there is much that remains unsettled both in the immediate term and in the long term. Yes, it seems as if the Medvedev vs. Ivanov question is resolved, as neither one seems to fit comfortably into "Putin's Plan." Zubkov, on the other hand, is a perfect fit as an aging bureaucrat who is known to be loyal to Putin. That said, it's interesting to note that at the end of the day, Putin could not trust either of the men whom he had supposedly been grooming. To be specific, he could not trust that either Ivanov or Medvedev would perform the role he intended them to perform and allow him to perform his desired role once he leaves office. In other words, by engineering his "plan" around a technocrat and his future position as Prime Minister, Putin's moves suggest that both potential heirs were still too independent for Putin's tastes.
But does this really settle the question? Are all the interesting questions and mysteries really put to rest? Between now and March 2008, it is possible that they are. The script has been revealed, and it is likely that it will be followed more or less according to the director's wishes.
However, the long-term implications of "Putin's Plan" have yet to be understood. In the first place, while Zubkov is assumed to be a pliable Putin loyalist, did not Yeltsin & Berezovsky not assume the same of Putin? While an independent Zubkov would no doubt face much greater hurdles to asserting his own power than did Putin in his early days as president, it's possible that he could. And while the probability of success would be low for Zubkov in such a scenario, in the very least it would produce some political fireworks: the constitutionally-elected president exercising his power to dismiss the prime minister, but the PM refuses to leave because he's the one with the informal power. All of a sudden Russia starts to look like Ukraine.... This is not to say that this will happen, or is even very likely. But it is possible, and it is an unknown.
The other assertion of Lyndon's panelist that I disagree with is the assumption that Putin will suck institutional power from the vertical he built and rebuild it in the Prime Minister's office. While this is possible, it doesn't serve Putin's longer-term interests if he seeks a return to the presidency in 2012 (or sooner, should Zubkov resign before then). Putin's challenge will be to maintain the formal institutions ("institutions" in political science jargon means "rules") as they are now while maximizing his power through informal institutions in the meantime. Thus, unless he envisions a permanent transformation of the Russian political system and its formal institutions whereby the president becomes a figurehead, he will not have an incentive to totally undermine the presidency if he has long time horizons.
Furthermore, it is important to ask whether the significance of his announcement lies in the possibility of him becoming Prime Minister, or whether the significance lies in his position (symbolic or formal) at the head of the United Russia party. If major political decisions can only be taken with the approval of the head of the Party who can deliver votes in the Duma, it may matter less who is the Prime Minister. Or, this may be the beginning of a tradition whereby the head of United Russia is always made Prime Minister. In either case, it is important to keep an eye on Putin's relationship with United Russia, as I have a feeling that is where his new power base will be located.
Ultimately, the biggest unknowns and the most consequential issues for the long term are the major institutional questions being shaped today. Political stability is brought by the iterated functioning of institutions (or rules), whether formal or informal. Democracies are stable because every X number of years the president or prime minister is selected according to rules which have been followed during that and previous iterations. And the most stable authoritarian regimes over time are those that have institutionalized the procedure for succession of leaders and have followed the same rules of succession repeatedly. Political instability, on the other hand, is brought about by a constant changing of the rules, or by actors refusing to follow the rules.
Thus, "Putin's Plan," while perhaps serving his immediate interest in maintaining power, might not be the optimal plan for the future survival and success of the regime, be it authoritarian or democratic. If Russia truly were a democratic country, then democracy would be stabilized by repeated elections whereby candidates are elected in contested, free, and fair elections. But Russia has yet to experience a "normal" transition of power, so the current institutional upheaval in the very least delays any kind of institutional stabilization.
Similarly, a non or partially-democratic Russia would be stabilized by iterated successions according to a common set of rules. It is possible that this is the beginning of such a process of institution building and that Putin has thought this far ahead. Nevertheless, Putin's shifting back and forth between offices would undermine the institutional stability of the regime in the long run. Assuming Putin intends to return to the presidency in 2012, then the 2008 "model" would be discarded and a new set of 2012 rules would be established. Similarly, power would once again return to the presidency. 2020 would then potentially bring a similar problem In other words, if power is shifting from the presidency to the premiership and back every 4-8 years, the overal institutional (and by extension political) stability of the regime is undermined.
As such, it is in the regime's long-term interest to institutionalize power within the presidency and amend the consititution to allow presidents to serve as long as they wish. The other option is to insitutionalize power in the office of the Prime Minister or the head of the United Russia party and keep it there. Shifting power back and forth is not good for stable authoritarian regimes. Now, note that I'm not advocating either of these options as normatively desirable - on the contrary, I'd like to see Russia hold open, democratic presidential elections, and I'm in favor of term limits. But my point is that from the perspective of the long-term survival of regime itself, it is better to establish rules and follow them.
Put another way, it is better for power to be institutionalized in the office rather than in the individual, even in an authoritarian regime. That way, when the individual dies the regime survives. But in order to have repeated successions, the incumbents must leave office (whether horizontally or vertically is less important) on a regular basis. His youth and vigor thus suggest that a "healthy" locus of power in the office rather than the person is unlikely as long as Putin is alive and well. Similarly, extreme personal authority amassed by a single individual is risky because nobody is allowed to develop the same kind of authority while the leader is alive. At the time of the leader's death, then, no successors have the political authority to rule that the predecessor did (think Stalin). While the regime might not be threatened, it will likely be stabilized.
And so, it turns out that "Putin's Plan" may not really be "Russia's Victory," even as Putin defines it. But at the end of the day, this is all speculation because - surprise surprise - we still don't really know where Russia is going and why it's going there...