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Putin’s (grey) Heir Apparent?

sobyanin succession

Is this the face of Russia’s next president?

According to a report quoted in today’s Moscow Times, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin has become the favorite to succeed Putin in 2018.


“Sobyanin is a figure who could please both the main tycoons in the energy industry and those who took part in dividing the spoils inherited from [former Mayor Yury] Luzhkov’s Moscow,” Yevgeny Minchenko, head of Minchenko Consulting Group and lead author of the report, said by phone. “In the eyes of the elites, Sobyanin has an established, positive track record. They see him as a mediator who can safeguard their interests.”

Apart from Sobyanin’s relative international obscurity, this conclusion is not a surprise. As Putin’s former chief of staff before being appointed mayor of Moscow, the Siberian native and career apparatchik is known for his longstanding loyalty to the president.

But there is one very interesting aspect to the fact that Sobyanin’s name is being thrown around as a possible successor to Putin. Consider this article in the Economist:

The choice of Sergei Sobyanin…is not a surprise [and] fits the logic of Russia’s main political trends. Putin…has every reason to be confident in Mr Sobyanin’s personal loyalty. The two men have history. In 2005 Mr Putin made Mr Sobyanin, then the governor of the oil-rich Tyumen province, the chief of his presidential administration. When Mr Putin became prime minister in 2008, Mr Sobyanin followed him and was made his deputy. Back in 2000, when Mr Putin became president, Mr Sobyanin, as a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, had helped him to get rid of Yury Skuratov, Russia’s prosecutor-general. In 2004 Mr Sobyanin was among the first regional governors to support Mr Putin’s abolition of regional elections.

Mr Sobyanin, a tight-lipped bureaucrat rather than a public politician, is a man of the Putin era. He has a reputation for being an efficient manager and… is not entangled in corruption scandals or controversies. In fact, very few stories about Mr Sobyanin exist at all. He is said to have tightly controlled the media as a regional governor, gave almost no interviews, and even photographs are hard to come by. Sobyanin’s name is…closely associated with the natural-resource sector. As the governor of Tyumen he worked closely with the country’s largest oil companies, including TNK-BP and Lukoil. He even persuaded some of them to register their headquarters there and pay taxes into the local budget, which made Tyumen one of Russia’s wealthiest regions.

Mr Sobyanin may well be considered for prime minister. 

Nothing sensational — that is, until you consider that this article was written not this week, but in 2010! The very fact that the observations above are still valid today, two years and all those anti-government protests later, is that Putin’s power and ability to set the political agenda have remained largely unchanged. The only prediction that the Economist appeared to have got wrong is that Medvedev somehow survived.

But wait, what’s that?

“According to Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin insider, Sobyanin could be made prime minister as soon as the fall if Putin decides on a major reshuffle of Medvedev’s Cabinet.”



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs