Putin fires starting gun on two-horse race to be his successor
About two-thirds of the way into Vladimir Putin's annual state-of-the-nation address this month, the president suddenly stopped, looked up and asked: 'And now, the most important thing. What is most important?'
A voice from the hall, apparently that of Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, shouted 'Love!' Mr Putin smiled, nodded and remarked that 'at the Defence Ministry, they understand what's really important'. He then launched into a detailed plan for improving the lot of Russian families and stimulating the birth rate.
That odd bit of political theatre may have been the starting gun for a race between Kremlin insiders to win the mantle of Mr Putin's heir apparent, a contest that seems likely to grow in ferocity and dominate Russian politics in the long months leading to the May 2008 constitutional deadline for the incumbent to leave office.
Mr Putin insists he will obey the law restricting a Russian leader to two consecutive terms. He has pledged to groom a successor, and in his national address, firmly thrust Mr Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev into the running.
'I have certain ideas about how to construct the situation in the country in this period of time, so as not to destabilise it, not to scare people and business,' Mr Putin said last week. 'Everyone values the situation we have today - a calm, steady, stable situation.'
His successor would be someone committed to carrying on the course he has set since being vaulted into his position with a nod from former president Boris Yeltsin more than six years ago.
Despite Mr Putin's assurances that Russian voters will have the last word on any nominee of his, few experts believe any changes not scripted by the Kremlin will be permitted in 2008, or that Russia today even has any viable opposition forces capable of pushing their way into the system of 'managed democracy' that the president has built.
Over the past six years, liberal political parties have been ejected from parliament, most electronic media placed under state control, independent civil society groups cowed and electoral laws changed to favour the huge, pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
'In Russia, we play at democracy, but we don't do it. We've had the same method of choosing our chiefs for 1,000 years,' says Alexei Mukhin, of the independent Centre for Political Information in Moscow. 'This is our Russian way, our national mentality. Putin knows what the people expect of him, and his great strength is that he delivers what they want.'
Like a czar of old, Mr Putin has handed a key task to each of his would-be heirs, with the implication that the one who performs best will take the prize.
Mr Ivanov will be charged with 'making Russia strong' again, in particular modernising the decaying Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to maintain its deterrent in an era when the US is moving towards a missile defence shield.
Mr Medvedev, deputy prime minister in charge of social policy, gets the challenge of reversing a spiralling population decline - Russia is losing 700,000 people a year - by convincing women to have more babies.
'Putin has moved these two men forward and placed them under tough public scrutiny,' says Sergei Kolmakov, of the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism, which is linked to the Russian State Duma. 'This may not be final - it's just a test. There is no procedure for this kind of thing.'
Mr Ivanov, a former translator in the Soviet KGB security service who is fluent in English and Swedish, is considered the frontrunner. A close friend of Mr Putin with a reputation as a tough-talking nationalist, he was brought to Moscow and given the defence minister's job in 2001. In November, the portfolio of deputy prime minister was added, presumably to boost his public profile.
Mr Medvedev, a lawyer from Mr Putin's home town of St Petersburg, is one of the few Kremlin insiders with no background in the security services. Generally regarded as a pragmatic liberal, Mr Medvedev served as Kremlin chief of staff before being moved, also in November, to the post of first deputy prime minister.
'Many people suspect that Medvedev has been put forward in order to fail,' says Mr Mukhin. 'Social problems in Russia are very difficult. It's a swamp that swallows politicians up.'
As for his own future, Mr Putin has only said: 'I will find my place in the ranks.'
Recent polls show more than 40 per cent of Russians will vote for anyone he names as his successor, and the Kremlin's well-honed machinery of political management can be expected to improve on that when the time comes.
Only one potentially serious contender from outside the Kremlin circle, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, has attempted to rally Russia's beleaguered liberals for a possible run in 2008. Mr Kasyanov has been implicated by Russia's prosecutor for an alleged improper real estate transaction and might face charges should he become a serious political threat.
If Mr Putin does step down in 2008, it will be an act unprecedented in Russia. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former president Boris Yeltsin both resigned, but only after all their other political options had run out.
'If this happens, it will be a very healthy precedent that will set an example of constitutional obedience,' says Mr Kolmakov.
But it may also come at great risk - Mr Putin has recreated Russia's traditional system of one-man rule, making him the indispensable guarantor of stability.
'The entire state machine depends on the personal authority and control of the No1 man,' says Boris Kagarlitsky, an expert at the left-leaning Institute of Globalisa-tion Problems in Moscow.
'Faced with any change at the top, the bureaucratic peace will be broken and political stability, Putin's great accomplishment, may be lost.'