Who’s Really in the Russian Government?

His Name Is Unknown, His Deeds Incomparable

Vladimir Putin
On the Campaign Trail: Russian President Vladimir Putin answers students’ questions in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Feb. 27, 2004 (Photo: Viktor Korotayev/AFP-Getty Images).

[Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s sudden dismissal of Mikhail Kasyanov is a move as unexpected as it is brilliant. This is a true crescendo in Putin’s campaign, essentially eclipsing the campaigns of all other presidential candidates. The election is as good as over; the nation can forget it. The nation is now holding its collective breath, waiting—not for the will of 100 million voters but for the will of one man alone. Putin himself. What will his next words be? Whom will he name? The pause is getting longer; suspense is building. There is no other news item in Russia, and there can be no other.

Why Kasyanov was dismissed is not the question. Who made the decision, aside from Putin, of course, is the question. Clearly, the decision must have been made by a small circle of confidants. Most Cabinet ministers were not part of it. This assumption is supported by how poorly informed of their own future the ministers were just before the State Council presidium meeting on Feb. 24. On the other hand, all insiders admit that the news of the Cabinet dismissal stunned most presidential administration officials as well. In other words, this unprecedented move is an indication that any important decision, or rather, any decision at all, is personally made by the national leader...which is just as the Constitution—the document to which Putin referred twice in his fairly short statement—demands. It looked as if he was emphasizing that the master of the Kremlin knows his rights and powers, which are truly unlimited.

There are not, and cannot be, any other centers of decision-making or significant political forces apart from the president himself. All others perform purely technical or ceremonial functions. The technical government, a technical presidential administration, a nominal director of the presidential administration, a ceremonial bicameral legislature, the so-called courts. No one doubts any longer that there is only one legislator, executor, and judge in this country. The rest serve as smoke screens for Western observers.

All the same, the decision to dismiss Kasyanov must have been collective. It carries the clear mark of a highly professional team. The decision was impeccable from a legal standpoint, with all necessary references and explanations. Some observers suspect the involvement of Viktor Ivanov, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, known as an adept at this sort of thing.

At the same time, the dismissal was delivered with impeccable propaganda trimmings. It was a public-relations masterpiece. The agenda is set: The public is talking about Kasyanov’s dismissal this week. Next week, it will talk about his potential successor. And the last week before election day will be used to form the new Cabinet. Finally, the president will go into his new term in office with a new prime minister and a new government suited to making breakthroughs and radical reforms.

This plan hints at the involvement of another master, someone like [Kremlin Staff Deputy Chief] Vladislav Surkov. As Gleb Pavlovsky, that courtier cum political consultant, told the Svoboda Slova TV program on Tuesday [Feb. 24], Kasyanov’s dismissal was “planned.” The president himself used this term at the Cabinet meeting the following day. Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, might have participated in thinking up the justifications and explanations.

And yet, Pavlovsky—or even Surkov—could have acted only on the orders of some other team even closer to the president. This is a team no one knows anything about. This is certainly different from how Boris Yeltsin ran the country, when his current favorites and friends were well known. The composition of Yeltsin’s “family” at any given moment was always known to the political establishment. But what about Putin’s family? Who is part of it? Not the director of the presidential administration, and certainly not the prime minister. Perhaps someone from the Cabinet, someone from the presidential administration, and some oligarchs. [Russian Defense Minister] Sergei Ivanov? [Federal Security Service Director] Nikolai Patrushev? [Deputy Chief of Staff] Dmitri Kozak? He (or they, for that matter) may be someone else—someone without high status or prominence in business circles.

And since the decision-makers, along with their preferences and wishes, remain unknown, neither do we know who will succeed Kasyanov as prime minister. There are speculations that this person may also succeed Putin, eventually. Is it perhaps an attempt to mislead the public? The true successor (to the president, not Kasyanov) should not be burdened with the problems of the next four years, which will be no easier than Putin’s previous term. Moreover, if the successor were known at the start of Putin’s new term, what significance would Putin have?

There is another theory. The new prime minister could serve as a kind of message to the international community and to Russian voters. The West has to be persuaded that Russia intends to implement radical reforms (hence the rumors concerning [Finance Minister] Aleksei Kudrin’s upcoming promotion). The voters back home should be appeased; the successor to Kasyanov should be an advocate of the confiscate-and-divide concept.

There are a few problems, though: First, finding such a person is not easy. Second, there is no law that requires Putin to make decisions that live up to anyone else’s expectations. In fact, the president and his inner circle no longer care about the West or the electorate. Putin is free to choose and act. Putin is confident. This means that the next prime minister may be someone entirely unexpected, someone, in fact, whose appointment may be more unexpected than Kasyanov’s dismissal was. One thing is clear: Whomever Putin appoints as prime minister, the elite will give that person a standing ovation and will, following [Interior Minister and Unified Russia party leader] Boris Gryzlov’s lead, extol the national leader’s strategic brilliance.

Translation courtesy of the WPS Russian Media Monitoring Agency,