Recently, a small event caused a major stir in Russian politics. An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Igor Shuvalov, said that it was realistic to expect the appearance of a new person whom Putin would consider his potential successor. The statement hit like a bombshell, producing an explosion of comments.
There is nothing strange in this. Russia's somewhat archaic political culture overly personifies power. Perceptions and assessments of the country's future often depend heavily on the personality of its leader, his resoluteness, and his intellectual and moral qualities.
Furthermore, Putin himself is interested in preserving uncertainty with regard to his successor for as long as possible. By doing so, he avoids the damage to his authority that would be caused by becoming a "lame duck," particularly given Russia's servile bureaucracy and its lack of reliable institutions and respected traditions to carry out a smooth transfer of power.
Finally, different clans around the president have long been trying to promote their own candidates for succession. Statements similar to Shuvalov's have already been made, and more can be expected.
This ongoing discussion of the various candidates' merits and drawbacks recalls how airplanes protect themselves from missile attacks by launching a false target. Public interest is the missile, and the target is the "ruling power," which protects itself by providing a decoy in the form of aimless talk.
But a more fundamental question is why Russia's politicians, journalists, and analysts (and even some in the West) happily engage in this ruse. At the moment, who will succeed Putin is not important; what counts is the process that will result in the choice of Russia's third president. The real historical significance of the choice that Russia will face next year will be determined not by the next president's personal qualities, but by his loyalties -- that is, to whom he owes his job.
Putin's successor (whoever that will be) will come to power as a result of a deal within a narrow elite circle. This means that he will be accountable to and dependent on those who raised him to power, not in a symbolic sense, but in the quite real sense of fulfilling promises and facing sanctions if he does not. This narrow circle comprises not only very rich and resourceful people, but also members of informal but very effective organizations (which are often, perhaps not entirely correctly, called "mafia").
Thus, the implementation of Operation Successor (which may include the extension of the current president's term) has imitated the way Putin himself came to power, and leaves Russia on the same path that Yeltsin set in the last years of his presidency -- a path that will either ruin the country or bring it to a dead end.
Politicians who come to power by winning a free and fair election are accountable primarily to voters.
This does not necessarily lead them to work solely for the public good. Even winners of competitive elections have commitments to their campaign teams and sponsors. However, the existence of real political opposition creates a different atmosphere, which spreads beyond elections.
Free elections do not determine politicians' behavior, and do not necessarily ensure that moral, energetic, and intelligent people fill high offices. But freedom and democracy do restrict arbitrariness and theft, and encourage politicians, regardless of their moral qualities, to take public interests into account.