"Add the deadly battles for assets among Putin's most loyal followers, such as the spat between Rosneft and Gazprom, and you get the picture. And, as one commentator put it recently, the political ground beneath the authorities' feet is also shaky because of tectonic processes reinforced by the successful Orange Revolution in Ukraine."
-- Yevgenia Albats
There is no lack of theories about the who and the why behind the attempt on the life of Anatoly Chubais, the CEO of the nation's second-largest monopoly, Unified Energy Systems. The culprits, people tell us, could be anyone from Chubais himself or his closest allies, hoping to bring fur ther instability to President Vladimir Putin's Russia, to all kinds of powerful interest groups, both past and present, who are eager to see Chubais dead. So far, one suspect - a retired colonel with an impressive background in covert operations - has been arrested in the case. Yet the question is not just one of who or why, but one of why now.
The most obvious answer lies in the controversy surrounding the reform of the utilities sector, which Chubais has been conducting for several years. There have been plenty of high-ranking public figures from both the state and private sectors who have acknowledged their strong objections to a breakup of the utility monopoly and to a free market for energy.
With the appointment of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov last spring, the reform was put on hold, but then it was resumed late last year. Yet, every single insider at UES rejected energy reform as a plausible reason for the attempted assassina tion.
"Had this happened a year ago, I would say yes, the reform might be the cause, but no, not now. With or without Chubais, the reform will go forward, and it is far too late to try and stop it," a top UES executive who wished to remain anonymous told me.
I agree. The answer to the question "Why now?" lies in the so-called 2008 problem, or, in other words, who will succeed Putin. Everyone is wondering who will be proclaimed heir to the throne, and, as a result, which direction the country will take.
Despite the fierce debates among the political elite on almost every issue, there is a funny consensus among both liberals and adherents of the "strong-hand" approach of government. They agree that regime change most likely will happen well before the 2008 presidential election. The reasons? The notorious power vertical has proven ineffective and is falling apart.
The badly planned administrative reform has created a mess in t he government. The botched dismantling of the welfare state has gotten a strong negative response across the country. The expropriation of Yuganskneftegaz in favor of Putin's favorites has alienated businesspeople and fed fears that redistribution of property to those in power will increase.
Add the deadly battles for assets among Putin's most loyal followers, such as the spat between Rosneft and Gazprom, and you get the picture. And, as one commentator put it recently, the political ground beneath the authorities' feet is also shaky because of tectonic processes reinforced by the successful Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
With the almost universal belief that the situation may get out of hand as early as next year, people across the political spectrum have sped up their preparations. Liberals, many gritting their teeth, have come up with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as a plausible alternative to Putin and his bureaucrats in e paulets.
At the other end is a growing movement, comprised predominantly of former and current KGB people who have strong and vocal supporters in the State Duma and in state-owned media and government circles eager to prevent a democratic backlash. Regardless of whether Chubais will become a leader of the democratic forces - which is highly unlikely - or remain a capable technocrat with the ability, will and resources to organize the opposition, he presents a real danger.
Thus, a political cleanup operation is under way, one that began with the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who publicly acknowledged his desire to get involved in top-level politics back in 2003. More victims are sure to follow.
Yevgenia Albats is a professor of political science at the Higher School
of Economics in Moscow.