In his latest statement posted on Open Russia, Belkovsky argues that Putin is facing a conflict between different security forces. Belkovsky divides these groups into the FSB (Federal Security Services) and Ramzan Kadyrov (the Putin appointed leader of Chechnya).
This is a conflict that has been going on since Putin came to power, Belkovsky claims. This is a bit disingenuous as Kadyrov has not been in power in Chechnya for 15 years. But his broader point is that much of Putin’s reputation as a strong leader has been built on his alleged success in subduing Chechnya.
On the other side of the conflict is the federal security structures (the siloviki). There are quite a lot of people in this group, and they are quite influential. Putin cannot betray this group because it would cost him his life, Belkovsky alleges.
Putin then is between a rock and a hard place. He cannot dismiss Kadyrov because his reputation is at stake. But he cannot side against the siloviki because they would overthrow him in a coup if he did.
Therefore, Putin is avoiding making a decision between the two clans, and this is the reason for his disappearance. The President hopes that the situation will be resolved in the meantime.
Putin could stay in power indefinitely as long as he stays alive, Belkovsky continues. But since nobody lives forever, at some point somebody must succeed him. This person will be the “anti-Putin”. He would have to reach some kind of deal with the West to save Russia’s economy and bring Russia back from the brink of war.
Belkovsky then again presents Prime Minister Medvedev as an this compromise figure. Yes, Medvedev acts like a fool, but this could all be an act, and the Prime Minister might well surprise us all.
Belkovsky concludes by saying that Putin’s legacy will not be great. There will be organized mourning and parades, but the transition of power will be relatively painless and no panic will ensue. The reason for this is that despite popular opinion, the Russian system is not personality-based. Rather it is more like a monarchy. Because of this there is some “guarantee of stability”, and the office is more important than the figure in it. And in due course, the Russian people will rapidly change their loyalty and love to a new leader.
I personally think Belkovsky is over-simplifying the situation here. The siloviki is not exactly a monolithic group. That being said, I think the Russian system can take some hits, and harder hits than many imagine. Putin’s image of a strong leader has been very carefully crafted for his domestic audience, but it could be taken away very quickly.
A transition to a new face does not have to be overly painful. Will there be some hiccups? Most likely. The clan system is very real, and there will be some jockeying for position and power behind the scenes. But these should not impact day to day activity or the economy in any real sense.
So this is one way that the Kremlin could wriggle out of the situation it currently finds itself in. Whether it will do so remains to be seen.
NOTE: In my opinion, Belkovsky does not speak with his own voice. He is voicing the opinion of somebody in the elite who wishes to remain anonymous. This is why his statements are important.