Vladimir Putin’s decision to appoint Moscow regional governor and former emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu as the new minister of defense has sent waves of speculation that Shoigu is being positioned to take over as Putin’s successor in the Kremlin—much as Putin himself was picked as President Yeltsin’s heir apparent in 1999.
From the regime’s point of view, such a move would make perfect sense. Despite the stirring self-persuasive rhetoric of Kremlin loyalists, Putin’s system is far from stable. Mass protest rallies, which followed last year’s fraudulent parliamentary vote, shattered the myth of the regime’s invincibility. Even according to the official results of the March presidential election, the majority of Muscovites voted against the “national leader.” A recent poll by the Levada Center showed that just 34 percent of Russians want Putin to remain in power for another term. Most analysts agree that the events of 2011–2012 marked the beginning of the end for the Putin regime. Senior pro-Kremlin figures recently urged Putin to prepare an exit strategy while there is still time to forestall a revolution.
Sergei Shoigu’s appointment may just be that “exit strategy.” Consistently the most popular member of the Russian government (he held the position of emergencies minister from 1991 to 2012), Shoigu was called to assist Putin in 1999, when he led the electoral list of the pro-Putin Unity party (now known as United Russia). His personal popularity helped the party achieve initial success, and eventually Putin’s own ratings began to climb due to his stance on “counterterrorism.” Unity, which registered 4 percent support in the polls at the start of the campaign, ended up taking 23 percent of the national vote and became the core of the new pro-Putin parliamentary majority. When Boris Gryzlov took over as leader of Unity after the election, the party’s support went down dramatically (it did not matter much, as the 1999 parliamentary election was the last such vote—to date—that international monitors assessed as “free and fair”).
“Shoigu is now the heir apparent, and [early] elections will take place soon,” predicted television pundit Mikhail Fishman. The new defense minister is “the only person in the ‘elite’ who could still, relatively honestly and without monstrous fraud, be sold to the people in an early presidential election,” concurred the noted political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. In his opinion, Putin’s deal with Shoigu will require that he guarantee impunity for Putin and for his close associates for the crimes they committed while in power.
Sergei Shoigu would no doubt be ready to give such a guarantee. Russia’s increasingly organized civil society and opposition, however, may have different ideas. To say nothing of international justice: it is likely that more than a few countries will withdraw the welcome mat for Vladimir Putin once he is out of the Kremlin.
Photo Credit: premier.gov.ru