Thursday, April 19, 2007

Steeled to succeed - Ivanov sets out his tough vision for Russia's future

The Financial Times published a very extensive interview with Russia's vice-premier Sergei Ivanov; a figure many claim to be the top man in the list to succeed Mr. Putin. The newspaper attempts to bring evidence to back their theory, as well an expansive list of other potential candidates for the job. I will not comment this post at the moment. Excerpts are below:

Mr Ivanov certainly talks like apresident-in-waiting, ranging easily - and with apparent Kremlin approval - across subjects from funding nanotechnology research to Iran's ballistic missile capabilities. He is "fairly liberal" on economic policy, he says, but thinks the state must control certain sectors - and Russian companies, state or private, should control its biggest oil and gas reserves. He believes Russians do not want a fully "Anglo-Saxon" style of government. Neither does Russia want a new cold war, though it feels betrayed by the west's behaviour since the last one. Above all, he says, anyone standing in the election on a ticket of repudiating Putinism will fail.

The one question Mr Ivanov does not - cannot - answer is whether he will stand himself. "I've not thought about it," he says. "If I started thinking seriously and preparing for elections, then what would I be doing here? First vice-premier of Russia is a rather responsible position. It's not possible to do both. I'm glad, to be honest, that right now there is no election campaign here," he adds, pointing with slight disdain to the US pre-election frenzy. Russia is better spending money on new airports and roads, Mr Ivanov says, than costly US-style campaigning.

Rumours suggest rival Kremlin clans are battling to get their man the job - a more liberal group pitted against the so-called siloviki or "men of power", hardline former intelligence and military personnel. Mr Medvedev is associated with the first group, Mr Ivanov with the second. A third group, perhaps a siloviki subset, seems to favour persuading Mr Putin to change the constitution and stay for a third term, though he has said he will not. Some analysts think Mr Putin may back another candidate (see below).

Even events such as last autumn's murders of Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist, and Alexander Litvinenko, the London-based former KGB officer, are seen as possibly linked to the succession struggle or to attempts to influence it. Meanwhile, the ragtag Other Russia coalition has launched an open campaign to derail the succession and dismantle what it calls Mr Putin's authoritarian regime.

The fact that Mr Ivanov knew Mr Putin before his St Petersburg administration days - unlike most of the president's entourage, including Mr Medvedev - may explain suggestions that the siloviki see him as not quite one of their own. He also only recently joined "Kremlin Inc", the web of state-controlled corporations that has been created under Mr Putin and chaired by ministers and senior officials. He chairs United Aircraft Corporation, a holding company for aviation manufacture.

"Russia is a huge country and, mentally, unfortunately the majority of the population still relies on the tsar," he says. "Russia will never take its model of management 100 per cent from the Anglo-Saxon political elite. Whether you like it or not is a different question, but I'm telling you how it is."

As for western-backed "beacons of democracy" around Russia's borders - Iraq, Georgia, or Ukraine, where parliament is engaged in a stand-off with the winner in the 2004 revolution - the tightened lips become almost a sneer. Ukraine "completely undermines democracy. Because people, having seen this total mess, will say, 'We don't need your democracy. Appoint us a tsar, give us our wages and stop bothering us with your democracy' ".

So what of those who turned out on Moscow and St Petersburg streets last weekend in the hope they might eventually replicate what happened in Ukraine? Mr Ivanov spoke to the FT before the demonstrations but his comments seem prescient. "In conditions of weak political culture, when demonstrations easily turn into fights, when they close down roads, this just arouses aversion among the population . . . There's a thin line between political freedoms and extremism." (The Other Russia coalition says the authorities started the violence.)

Mr Ivanov seems most at home discussing international issues such as these. While Mr Medvedev, his apparent rival - whose responsibility is billion-dollar social investment programmes - can discourse on how to get Russia's mortgage market working or the need for more medical staff in village clinics, Mr Ivanov shows relish for discussing affairs of state.

This might explain suggestions that Mr Putin's choice could depend on how he perceives the next president's main task. If it is continuing Russia's economic modernisation in a broadly benign environment, Mr Medvedev might get the nod; if it is dealing with a worsening international situation - such as after US air strikes on Iran - that may be a job for Mr Ivanov. A global crisis after military action against Iran, a prospect that seems to haunt the Russian leadership, is also seen as a potential pretext for the Kremlin's "third term" party to persuade Mr Putin to stay on.

Some of Mr Ivanov's message might reassure those watching Russia's regained assertiveness with apprehension. "In absolutely any scenario for Russia's development, we will not enter into another cold war. We stepped on that rake once," he says, "and will not repeat our mistake ever again." If Russia is modernising its military, while spending a fraction of what the Soviet Union spent - or what the US spends today - this is targeted not at the west but at potential threats from neighbours that include North Korea and Iran.

But he insists that comments by military commanders apparently linking Russian desire to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with the US plans have been misinterpreted. The treaty banned US and Soviet medium-range weapons. Moscow is questioning it, he says, only because other states - "North Korea, China, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, all of them close to us" - now have medium-range missiles. In the new environment, it does not make sense for only the US and Russia to be denied these weapons. "We are not going to break our necks producing them or, still less, aiming them at Europe," says Mr Ivanov. "We have - I underline - other problems and other threats."

Foreign-funded attempts to destabilise Russia in the approach to next year's presidential election could happen, he adds. But the man who may yet be frontrunner is unperturbed. "There could be attempts, or the desire to do so. But nothing will come of this. The economic and political situation today is very stable. This will be money thrown into the wind."

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