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Walker's World: Putinism Rules

Right behind Putin - front runner for the 2008 election, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Washington (UPI) Sep 19, 2005
Russian President Vladimir Putin will not lose much sleep over the announcement that his former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has finally confirmed that he will make a run for the presidency in the 2008 election.

First, Putin is not running himself. He has again ruled out any amendment to the Constitution that would allow him to try for a third term, and even seems to have ruled out the constitutional change that would let him continue in power as Prime Minister, while paring back the presidency into a figurehead role.

Second, even if Putin were to run, the overflowing coffers of the Russian state (with over $150 billion currently in the Central Bank) make a powerful argument for his good stewardship. Russia is currently pumping just over 9 million barrels of oil a day, and at $50 a barrel (and the market price is higher than that), that means well over $500 million a day, $3.5 billion a week, getting on for $200 billion a year.

This pays for Putin's newly announced plan to pump an extra $4 billion into the social welfare budget, which may ease some of the mounting grumbles about the gap between rich and poor.

Then there is the natural gas, which explains why Putin's visit to New York this week features several meetings with the heads of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips who are bidding for the right to help Russia's Gazprom exploit the massive Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea.

Third, what had seemed back in December as Putin's biggest setback, the Orange revolution in Ukraine that ejected Putin's preferred candidate and replaced him with the far more pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, is now looking rather different. The latest political crisis in Ukraine, with the resignation of Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's old partner in the Orange movement, is forcing Yushchenko back into Russia's arms.

His new prime minister, Yury Yekhanurov, has been described by most of the Western media as a technocrat. Yes, but he is also an ethnic Russian from eastern Ukraine, just as the departed Tymoshenko is an ethnic Ukraine nationalist.

Her breach with President Yushchenko has split the Ukrainian vote, which was the base of the Orange revolution, so now Yushchenko's only way to defeat her is to make a tactical alliance with the ethnic Russians for next year's parliamentary elections. And the ethnic Russians of Ukraine are keen to maintain close and cordial relations with Moscow, which leaves Putin in the Kremlin looking as if he did not suffer such a strategic political defeat in Ukraine after all.

And Yushchenko's hopes of a swift embrace from the institutions of the West are making little headway. The head of World Trade Organization committee considering Ukraine's application says that Yushchenko's goal of joining this year now appears "much more difficult, if not improbable."

And the European Union, which does not want to hear any talk of further expansion after the French and Dutch voters rejected the draft new Constitution this summer, is being more than cool to Ukraine's overtures. The doors to the West are not exactly gaping wide for Ukraine, while Putin beams a warm "welcome home."

And Putin now comes to the U.N. to deliver a speech on the evils and dangers of terrorism, which chimes precisely with the speeches of President George W. Bush and Britain's Tony Blair. He is friends with everybody.

The Chinese defense minister is in Moscow, signing new arms deals for Il-76 military transports and in-flight refueling tankers, and there are unconfirmed rumors of Chinese interest in Russian nuclear submarines. And Putin now also speaks with the top table prestige of the man who will be hosting next year's G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

It will not be easy to give up all this, when Putin's second term runs out in 2008. But already he can watch the very discreet jostling that is beginning for the succession. While Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is no doubt the front runner, Dmitri Rogozin, the leader of the Rodina (Motherland) party and the man who wants to revive the name of Stalingrad, is gaining support. A clutch of current and ex-Governors are also in the running along with Presidential envoy Dmitri Kozak.

These are the kinds of men who would broadly preserve the Putin legacy. They are patriots who want Russia to be taken seriously in the world, believe in stability and in restoring the authority of the state. They have learned the essential lesson of the Putin years, that independent sources of power in the media and in the corporate sector are not to be tolerated. The TV stations will remain under state control, and the former Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is likely to remain in jail.

They tend to retain some suspicion of the United States, and want to restore Russian influence over Central Asia and Ukraine. So long as oil and gas continue to pay the bills, they will subordinate economic reform to what they see as Russia's strategic self-interest.

They would be predictable, if not entirely comfortable partners for U.S. policy-makers, and would like to see the European Union continue as a wealthy investor and customer for their energy exports, rather than become a serious strategic player. And their overwhelming concern will be the rise of China, and what that might portend for Russia's energy-rich Siberian provinces.

But this has been the Putin style, leavened in his case by his capacity to develop string personal relations with foreign leaders like Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. And whether or not Putin remains in the Kremlin after 2008, that pattern of rule is likely to remain, to the degree that we may yet have to coin the term Putinism to describe it.

And Putinism, of course, has been the fate of the former premier Mikhail Kasyanov, whose new Presidential bid seems faintly quixotic, since Putinism means that Kasyanov is currently under investigation by the Prosecutor General's office for alleged fraud and abuse of power.

"I cannot just go into the shadows. The absence of any positive change has convinced me. I cannot just leave because there is no one else to develop the political process, which many millions of Russian citizens are counting on," Kasyanov told the Ekho Moskvy radio audience Wednesday. "Without an alliance of democratic forces in the near future, democracy in Russia will face an unhappy end."

Something of the kind is already in the wind. The two main liberal opposition groups of Yabloko and SDS (Union of Right Forces) are already discussing fighting a joint campaign for December's Moscow city elections, but so far Putinism, and the oil bonanza that sustains it, look to be in the driving seat through 2008 and thereafter.

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The presidential administration and the government of Russia have drafted a plan to step up Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan. It covers all strategic directions of bilateral cooperation - from ties in the military and military-technical sphere to contacts in hydropower engineering and other budget-forming industries of Kyrgyzstan.

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