From the November 26, 2007 Insight
November 26, 2007
by Andrei A. Piontkovsky
The evolution of any closed, repressive, hierarchical entity, whether it be an authoritarian state, a mafia family, a primeval tribe, or a pack of predators in the African savanna, is subject to a number of laws dictated by the functional nature of such entities.
These systems can be highly successful and stable in coping with particular local tasks, but a knotty problem, which they all have sooner or later to face, is the issue of how to replace the leader of the pack.
The alpha male in a pride of lions cannot suddenly succumb to philosophical longings, declare himself the lions' spiritual leader, and remove himself from the day-to-day social and physiological life of the pride. The young males would promptly cover all his females and tear their "spiritual leader" to pieces. And their collective would be racked by political instability for a long time thereafter.
This is precisely the reason why general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tended to die in harness, and why their successors in a number of post-Soviet territories, like Central Asia and Belarus, wisely declare themselves presidents for life. The problem facing the pack has at least been kicked into the long grass.
Putin has not found it easy to decide to follow their example. He is only too aware of the merciless laws of the system he has been setting up step by step for the past seven years. Taking that final step of agreeing to a third term is tantamount to accepting a life sentence. He will move into a new existential realm, a world of shadows from which no traveler returns. The darkness at noon of the Kremlin will swallow him up forever. If Comrade Stalin, a potentate who held sway over half the world, had voluntarily quit his post, he would barely have had time to make it to the nearest wall before he was shot, and so he soldiered on for twenty years: until his comrades-in-arms eventually found him on the floor where he had been lying unconscious in his own urine for twenty-four hours. His clandestine pseudonym was "Man of Steel," which is no doubt why he lasted so long.
However, the risks attendant upon a banal departure from power on May 8, 2008 in accordance with the Russian constitution have evidently become totally unacceptable. Too many skeletons have accumulated in Putin's political cupboard: the blowing up of apartment blocks in Moscow, the Nord-Ost Theatre siege, Beslan, the Yukos affair, the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, the financial empires of his close associates, Roman Abramovich and Gennady Timchenko.
Having finally taken the decision, Putin acted rapidly and efficiently, making the moves which were his only option.
On Sept. 12, he proclaimed urbi et orbi the name of the only person in the land he could entrust briefly with the throne of Russia. The advanced age of the jester-tsar and their long-standing and very close working relations, consolidated by their shared experience of the bed of nails that was the Foreign Liaison Committee of the St. Petersburg Council, ruled out any danger of his becoming an independent player.
Leningrad. The bitterly cold winter of 19.. " no, not 1942 but 1992. The skeletal hand of famine was again reaching for the throat of the city which had cradled three revolutions. Until morning the lights were burning in a small room in the Smolny Institute. Bent over piles of invoices, the young chairman of the Foreign Liaison Committee, Vladimir Putin, and his highly experienced deputy, Viktor Zubkov, were working through yet another of a succession of sleepless nights.
Their brilliant plan to save the citizens of St. Petersburg from starvation was to export large quantities of non-ferrous metals in return for food.
The first part of the operation went perfectly. Non-ferrous metals flowed to the Baltic States and Finland. The food, unfortunately, failed to materialize. As later became clear, this was due to circumstances beyond the control of the chairman and his deputy, but that was not known at the time. The deputies of the Leningrad Soviet demanded that the leaders of the Foreign Liaison Committee should be fired and put on trial. Only eight years later, when running for the presidency, did Putin reveal the secret of 1992. "You see, as a result of inexperience we put our trust in ephemeral firms registered at false addresses and under false names. They sent the non-ferrous cargo through the customs, and by the next day had disappeared."
A comprehensive explanation, you will agree, and yet how much obloquy these estimable gentlemen were subjected to at that time, how many unjust reproaches and unfounded suspicions. Such ordeals bring people closer together, and the likelihood is that at that difficult time in his life the young chairman came to feel warmly toward and to respect his senior colleague so much more experienced and wise in economic and commercial matters. Indeed, it seems likely that their relations came to resemble those of father and son.
The autumn of 2007 arrived, and having mentally reviewed every possible and impossible option, the president realized he had only one choice " to hand over the throne for a few months, at most three or four, to someone he could trust implicitly, and then, when that someone sought to retire on health grounds, to resume the presidency without formally violating the constitution, which forbids three successive terms of office. When he came to that decision, Vladimir Putin had not the slightest doubt who should be the candidate for the post of jester-president.
Andrei Piontkovsky is a visiting fellow with Hudson Institute.
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