Putin picks all the Kremlin's men

THEY are now all the president's men. Having gained control of parliament, government, regional governors, the media, the judiciary, and oil and gas, Russian leader Vladimir Putin last week sealed his grip on power with an Orwellian twist: the support of the opposition.

The two opposition parties last week declared they would form an alliance to fight United Russia, Putin's party, while at the same time backing, on a personal level, whoever takes over from the president in 2008.

Even in the bizarre world of Russian politics it was a strange move, but it has at least served to sharpen debate on the growing question in the corridors of the Kremlin, that of Putin's successor.

Such is his control of the country, and in particular the media, that whoever Putin anoints is a shoo-in for election in 2008. The bad news for the West is that there are no friendly candidates.

In one corner is defence minister Sergei Ivanov, responsible for the Chechnya anti-terrorist campaign, which this week saw another judgment for human rights abuses issued by the European Court.

In the other is Dmitri Medvedev, currently chairman of Gazprom, which last January turned off the taps to Ukraine and caused a shudder to spread across Europe.

The rule of either man is likely to widen the chasm between Russia and the West on issues ranging from democracy to human rights to gas supplies and the Middle East.

Putin has no choice but to stand down. Under the terms of the constitution, he cannot stand for a third term in office. He himself has ruled out changing the constitution, but joked that he might run for office again "for 2012 and 2016".

Most think he wants to appoint an ultra-loyalist to "mind the shop" until he can return for a further eight years. At 50 he is young enough to contemplate such a course.

In the meantime, in the enigmatic style he has honed to a fine art in the past seven years, he has been careful to name not one likely successor but two - appointing both Ivanov and Medvedev as deputy prime ministers, seen as a vital stepping stone to power.

The problem for Russia, and for the West, is that party politics have ceased to exist in Russia. Instead, power is in the hands of a small number of barons, most of them former army or KGB men who are nicknamed the Siloviki, or strong men. Whichever baron gets handed the mantle of power will provoke the enmity of all the others.

When Putin came to power six years ago, he straddled two groups - the Siloviki, who wanted a strong nation on one side, and the economic liberals on the other. This second group has now crumbled following the dramatic resignation of its champion, Kremlin economics adviser Andrei Illarionov earlier this year. He quit in disgust at Putin's re-nationalisation of key industries, and publicly complained that "Russia is no longer a democratic country".

Certainly, democracy as practised in the West is impossible in Russia, where the TV news and most newspapers are slavishly loyal to the Kremlin. The nightly newscasts feature glowing portrayals of the president, whether on state visits or admonishing ministers for the various failures of an ever more top-heavy governing system.

In parliament, the decision of the opposition alliance - composed of the nationalist Rodina Party and the communist Party of Life - to support Putin looks bizarre, given that the ruling party, United Russia, is slavishly loyal to Putin anyway.

Other opponents have meanwhile been silenced by the law.

When oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky announced he was to run against Putin in 2003, he was jailed for eight years in Siberia in a trial described as a farce.

When former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced the same thing last year, he was slammed with charges of having stolen a state-owned summer house, the so-called Dachagate. Unsurprisingly, there are few new names ready to contest the 2008 election.

Yet opposition still springs up. Former world chess champion Gary Kasparov has jumped into the yawning political vacuum, holding an "alternative summit" earlier this month to denounce Putin's politics.

On the eve of the G8 summit in St Petersburg, he called on other leading nations to boycott Russia, arguing that Putin had subverted the machinery of government. But Kasparov has no political history, no following and, starved of media exposure, is unlikely to prosper.

Meanwhile, the system itself is cracking up. Putin has succeeded in doing the impossible: his iron rule has so terrified officials that the top-down system of control of the tsars is now back in fashion.

"We kept getting the same items on the agenda month after month," one western executive in a large Russian company complained last week. "Nobody except the man at the very top is ready to make a decision."

The same holds true across Russia, causing huge bottlenecks that cripple legislation. Meanwhile, corruption has actually got worse than it was in the chaotic 1990s, with Transparency International rating Russia as joint worst in Europe's corruption league - along with Albania.

Putin appears unable or unwilling to tackle the corruption that sees police shake down tourists for a few pounds or planning officials demand payoffs to sign off new buildings.

With more and more decisions now resting on Putin personally, the wheels have begun to fall off the government machine. "The Russian government internally is not all that well co-ordinated," moaned one western diplomat. "It's a genuine problem."

Just how genuine was embarrassingly spelt out two weeks ago when finance minister Alexei Kudrin announced that America would shortly allow Russia into the World Trade Organisation. Two days later the US announced the opposite, leaving egg on the face of finance officials and questions about how such highly placed men could be misled.

Meanwhile, Putin's Russia has inequalities not seen since the days before the fall of the Tsar. While the rich, bloated on high oil prices, live it up with the most outrageous excesses in Moscow - top prostitutes now charge up to 600 a night - most of the rest of the country goes without. Pensioners struggle on 30 a month, hospitals crumble and the once-proud education system is a shambles. The children of the poor are drafted into the never-ending war in Chechnya while those of the rich buy exemptions and are then sent to expensive universities in the West.

With the Kremlin united, these strains can be contained. But as the battle for succession looms, it is becoming ever more fragmented, and Putin is finding it ever harder to keep everyone happy.

Back to the top of the page