It's one thing to fancy yourself as a potential successor to Vladimir Putin, but another to talk about it in public.
Maxim Oreshkin, Russia's youthful minister of economic development, went out on a limb this week when he said that he would like to be president.
“The job of president would definitely be interesting to any manager from the point of view of essence and content,” he told a meeting at the Academy of Journalists in Moscow.
“I still have lots to do in my current post so I’m only discussing this in the abstract.”
An economist by training and a former banker, Oreshkin is one of a number of young technocrats Putin has been promoting to government posts. Although not part of the Kremlin inner circle, word is that he’s one of the Russian president’s favourites.
With the current presidential term expected to be Putin’s last, there is intense speculation about his potential successors and how to manage an orderly transition.
Behind the scenes a struggle is going on for the president's post, said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political scientist. "Because they all quite mistakenly think that they could be president."
It’s not clear whether Oreshkin seriously sees himself as a crown prince or whether his comments at the Journalists’ Academy were prompted by his superiors. But some officials appear to think that the economy minister, who at 37 is the youngest member of the cabinet, has got too big for his boots.
When Oreshkin appeared in the Russian Duma, or parliament, on Thursday to deliver an annual report on the government's economic plans, he faced an extremely hostile audience.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin first interrupted the speech to complain about the lack of spending statistics and then dismissed him from the house like a schoolboy.
“People here were elected,” Volodin said. “You’re not prepared for the debate.” Deputies applauded.
Oreshkin kept his cool, promising to consult with colleagues and return to the Duma next month with the required information.
Although often belligerent, Volodin has never turfed a government minister out of the Duma before and the spat drew a lot of attention in Russian media. Many commentators suggested that this was a watershed moment and the gloves were finally coming off in the battle for the presidency.
"Vyacheslav Volodin felt a threat from Maxim Oreshkin as a potential successor and swiftly humiliated him," said Alexey Vennediktov, the editor in chief of Echo Moskvy radio station. "Nerves are fraying. It's beginning."
An acceptable candidate
During almost two decades as Russia’s paramount leader, Putin has barred the rise of any potential challenger.
But with the Russian constitution allowing for only two consecutive presidential terms, he will have to stand down before the next election in 2024 unless he changes the rules.
Although likely a constant topic of discussion when Russian officials and oligarchs meet in their mansions and yachts, the succession question is , like the proverbial elephant in the room, never raised in public discourse.
Russia’s elite is far from cohesive and there’s no obvious candidate acceptable to all competing groups to fill Putin’s shoes as the guarantor of their wealth and security. So while Putin muses occasionally about how he’d like to read history books or play hockey in retirement, most people believe his main preoccupation is to devise a scenario that allows him to stay in power.
One option would be to repeat the so called "castling" move of 2008 when Putin, after completing his first two presidential terms, swapped jobs with his trusted prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and continued to exert power over policy making as head of government.
When the next election came round in 2012, Medvedev stepped aside and Putin returned to the Kremlin.
Another approach could see an overhaul of the power structure to create an institution where Putin could retain overall authority.
The Kremlin has lately renewed interest in a treaty signed by Russia and Belarus in 1997 that envisaged the merger of the two former Soviet countries. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, is wary of the plan, and has raised all kinds of questions including who would rule the numerous questions including who would be ruler of the union state.
However, the Russian government is pressing ahead. Oreshkin has been appointed to chair a commission studying how the Russian-Belarus economies might integrate.