It seems to me that Putin's recent moves--appointing Zubkov, setting up the new Investigative Committee, announcing his plan to head up the United Russia ticket, appointing his own man to run the Transneft pipelines (remember, it was over pipelines that Khodorkovsky and Putin went to war)--are all designed to ensure his power. It's hard to tell to what degree he is controlling the takedown of the Cherkesov clan or the Patrushev-Sechin clan, or if he even can control their battle. The fact that the two sides have taken their war to the media suggests that they're less afraid of upsetting their master than they used to be.
In short, Putin is already weakened. That's why he's scrambling to strengthen his position and weaken the other clans. Every move he makes from here on out is fraught with danger. If he runs for parliament, appoints his man Zubkov as president, and then becomes the prime minister of a new parliamentary republic--basically following the playbook of Khodorkovsky's plan to take power--then he'll subject himself to the uncertainty of whethor or not the new president will really hand over power to Prime Minister Putin. There could be a long tug-of-war and new factions will very likely emerge. He might get some of the power, but not all of it. Jealousies, greed, ambition, and the general mess of transition all mean that Putin could find himself locked in a serious and dangerous battle, if he already isn't in it.
His other option is the Kazakhstan Scenario. This year, Kazakhstan's dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev passed laws allowing him to remain in office for life, quashed what little remains of the opposition, and then held elections which turned his parliament into a single-party rubber-stamp committee. He managed this all with the West's collusion: when Nazarbayev announced legislation making him president for life this past May, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called it "a step in the right direction," leading to outrage among Kazakhstan's beleaguered pro-democracy movement. When the rigged elections this summer gave him a one-party parliament, the OSCE hailed it as "welcome progress." Kazakhstan has for the past couple of years been the darling of Dick Cheney and the neocons. Even self-described Russophobe Kim Zigfeld wrote a suspiciously placed article praising Kazakhstan's leap forward into Western democracy.
In other words, if Putin wants to be a democrat, he should change the constitution, stay in office for life, and make the United Russia party the only party in the Duma. That's what Nazarbayev advised Putin this past summer. "Worked for me!"
But if Putin does change the constitution to stay in power, then in many ways, his situation is even more precarious. If he was able to leave office next March and retire, he'd leave as perhaps the most popular leader in Russian history, with a turnaround win-loss record that would rival Bill Parcells'. If he stays in office, particularly now that he's overseeing and managing the silovik feud, he's going to make a lot of enemies fast. And history shows that if you stay in power past your legal date, you become increasingly authoritarian, increasingly isolated--and increasingly targeted. And it usually ends with exile or extradition. Or a bonfire.
What this means is that whatever's coming next is going to be ugly. We're all going to look back at the Putin Era as some kind of mythical Happy Days, Russia's version of the Ike Era.
It's the End of the Putin Era as We Know It...do you feel fine?