On Monday, at least part of the answer emerged to the question
of what the future holds for Russia. By all appearances, it is
going to become an official energy conglomerate - Goodbye Russia;
Petro-diplomacy has been the prominent feature of Russia's foreign policy since the rise in oil prices. It looks like any attempt at a distinction between business and politics will now be lost.
Specifically, the hand-picked successor to Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the front-runner in the March presidential elections. The four parties in the Russian Duma that support Mr. Putin, the largest of which is United Russia, this week announced their support for Dimitri Medvedev, chairman of the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Mr. Putin beamed in support of the choice of his 42-year-old protege, who also serves as first deputy prime minister in the Putin government and previously served as Mr. Putin's chief of staff. Mr. Medvedev also was campaign chairman for the Putin election campaign in 2000 (not that there was much to campaign about after the first Putin term in office as he sought re-election).
Just like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, got to choose his successor, so Mr. Putin now has had the opportunity to choose his. Mr. Putin, meanwhile, still has the option of moving to the position of prime minister, from which he could dominate the political scene. In any event, he undoubtedly will not fade from politics, and reportedly favors the suggestive title of "national leader" (although no such office actually exists in the Russian constitution). It does bring to mind, however, characters like Kim Jong-il or Ayatollah Khomenei.
Last week's column in this space bemoaned the death knell for Russian democracy, and Mr. Medvedev's announcement will not do much to change that sentiment. Russians like strong leaders and they like predictability. Mr. Putin has offered both. His hand will be felt for years to come.
It is true, of course, that politicians elsewhere like to pick their successors, too. In the United States, for instance, presidents routinely endorse their vice president for the next election, but after the election, they are expected to fade from the scene and usually do so scrupulously, as did Ronald Reagan. But victory is by no means certain. Walter Mondale did not succeed Jimmy Carter, Dan Quayle did not succeed George H.W. Bush and Al Gore failed to succeed Bill Clinton.
Mr. Medvedev has not, so far, impressed anyone as the kind of leader who would strike out on his own. Part of Mr. Putin's St. Petersburg coterie and a corporate lawyer by profession, he holds the powerful position of chairman of the Russian energy giant due to his relationship with Mr. Putin. He does not have an independent power base, and is not backed by the Russian powerbrokers in the business community, or, as best is known, by the secret services. And he is young by the standards of the office he will be ascending to in March (unless stopped by unforeseen circumstances). If and when elected, he will be the youngest Russian leader since the 28-year-old Nicholas II's accession to the throne in 1896 - which may not be a comparison Mr. Medvedev is that keen on given what happened to Czar Nicholas.
Now, were he able to set an independent course, Mr. Medvedev might be more amenable to the West than Mr. Putin. Though presiding over Russia's national energy company, he has at least stated a preference for private over state ownership. At this year's meeting in Davos, he gave a speech that was surprisingly pro-market and conciliatory toward the West. How far he will be able to act on his own instincts is doubtful though - or indeed how much power the presidency will retain after Mr. Putin makes his next move.
Whatever the ins and outs of Russian politics, the priorities of the United States and Europe should remain constant. We should continue to emphasize the value of democratic institutions and support those in Russia that continue to believe in them. And as previously stated, we should deny Russia a seat at the table in organizations where only genuine democracies meet. Also, it would be a really good idea for European nations to rethink their energy dependence on Russian oil and gas. Of course, in the future they will have just one phone call to make when they want to discuss energy cutoffs - and that will be to the Kremlin.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times