Note February 2016. Of course, I was wrong and Putin did run again. I believe, as I argue here, that NATO’s duplicity over Libya convinced him (correctly as it turned out) that bad times were coming and only he could helm the ship.
It sometimes seems that the only story in Russia today is who will run for President and the Kommentariat is parsing every word uttered by Putin or Medvedev in its search for clues. Neither has yet said anything definite (and no more would either: the fear is that the Russian bureaucracy – ever alert to power shifts – would stop working altogether). Readers are reminded that we heard similar speculation before: Gorbachev would not step down; Yeltsin would not (could not some said) step down; Putin would change the Constitution and stay on. In some cases, there are Russia watchers who have stoutly maintained all these positions.
I was amused by a recent – and rather lengthy – think piece which concluded that the possibilities were that Medvedev, Putin or someone else would be the next President. I believe that people who watch Russia should do better than that; and I am putting my bets down:
1. Medvedev will run for President and Putin will not.
2. There may be another candidate from the Team who runs.
Medvedev will run for President and Putin will not.
I believe that the decision was made some years ago that Putin would not serve more than two terms and that he would hand off to a trusted member of the Team which been running Russia since 2000. What Putin did, by stepping down as President and re-appearing as Prime Minister, was something not before seen: for probably the first time in Russian history there are two power centres which are cooperating. Many people simply cannot grasp the concept and insisted for some years that Medvedev was just a place-holder; now, curiously, the conventional view is becoming that Medvedev is somehow opposed to Putin and that Putin will take back the reins.
I maintain that there has been a Plan since 2000; that that Plan can be seen in the speeches of the two and especially in Putin’s Russia at the Turn of the Millennium. Or to take a more recent example, here is Putin reflecting on what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. I do not apologise for the length of the quotation; in my opinion too few actually read what the man says. He remembers what he faced in 2000:
The scale of the tasks was directly proportionate to the problems Russia was facing at the beginning of the 21st century. We entered the new century after a default that spurred inflation growth and led to bankruptcies and unemployment. At least one-third of [the] population fell below the poverty line. The system of state governance was experiencing serious problems. The authorities were ineffective, and the country looked like a group of principalities, each with its own laws and rules. At that time, a genuine civil war was under way in the North Caucasus, unleashed by terrorists who were supported by forces that sought to weaken Russia. The situation called for decisive action. I am referring above all to the restoration of constitutional order, social guarantees, and the strengthening of state institutions. We have done all of that. We have literally brought the country together, restored its legal space and created a balanced system of state governance… Most importantly, we have ensured stability.
In short, three problems: economic failure, an ineffective state and lawlessness. He did not mention the fourth: a Russia that was considered to be a declining power, on its way to negligibility. But, “Most importantly, we have ensured stability”. That sums up what Putin thinks he did as President.
The interviewer than asks him whether, “after solving high-priority problems in the past decade, we now need qualitative changes and some kind of a breakthrough in all spheres of the country’s life?” Putin answers:
I get asked this question a lot. And I’ll give the same answer by quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn who once said that ‘preserving the people’ was Russia’s national idea. This phrase captures the main goal of modern Russia and all the ongoing transformation of its economy, social sphere, and its public and political life. At the same time, I consider consistent development to be the key to realising this national idea. We should take pride in Russia’s thousand-year history, natural resources and cultural heritage. But we must move forward, no matter what. We must maintain competitive positions in all spheres, including technology, human capital, industrial production and the arts. Society, the government and the business community must work as a team. This is the only way to attain the qualitative breakthrough you mentioned.
Qualitative change is, of course, one of Medvedev’s continually-repeated themes. I fail to see any serious disagreement between the two here. Putin “restored stability” during his two presidential terms and now is the time for a “qualitative breakthrough”. Phase I then Phase II of the long job of rebuilding Russia after what Putin once called the “blind alley” of communism.
Making the “qualitative breakthrough” will, of course be more difficult; although there were many who thought that stability could not be restored – a favourite example is a piece that appeared in 2001, the title says it all, “Russia is Finished”. It will also take much longer, and, in some respects, will never be completed because the target of “modernity” is continually moving.
Therefore, the Plan has moved into another phase and that is the job of Medvedev, whom Putin picked and nurtured (and they were both grown in Anatoliy Sobchak’s nursery). I see no serious evidence that Putin is dissatisfied with his choice. Compare and contrast lists like this do not convince me that there is a strategic difference between the two.
And there is a little clue: in another interview, Putin dropped a pretty significant hint when he said he was “fed up with foreign policy”. Foreign policy is a rather large part of the President’s job.
Therefore, I expect that The Plan will be adhered to and Medvedev will run for a second term and Putin will not.
There may be another candidate from the Team running
In 2006 the political party Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) was created. It was clear that there was a good deal of involvement by the Kremlin in its creation. This was puzzling because United Russia (Единная Россия) is the “Kremlin party”; why would the Kremlin want to create a second establishment party with a slightly different flavour?
The Russian political scene is rather barren. The only detectable raison d’être of the majority party is the division of the spoils of power. The Communists and Zhirinovskiy’s personality party have little to offer the majority. Russian liberals are quarrelsome and play more to outside opinion than to Russian interests. Perhaps the hope was that Just Russia would attract membership away from the Communist and liberal electorates but, if so, there is little evidence that it has. Although the party has secured seats in the Duma and in regional legislatures, it is very much a second fiddle to the all-dominating United Russia.
At the time – just before the 2008 presidential election – it seemed possible to me that the reason for Just Russia’s creation could be that two Team candidates would run, one for United Russia and one for Just Russia. In this event, the election would be more competitive than yet another run of the Team candidate against Zhirinovskiy and Zyuganov – a very tired contest indeed and one we have seen in almost every presidential election since 1991. Secondly, the contest would establish Just Russia as a viable party and Russia would have a species of political pluralism.
But, if this were the plan, it did not happen and Russia had another election in which the Team candidate, supported by the machinery of United Russia, faced off against Zhirinovskiy and Zyuganov. And, of course, Medvedev won as he would have, with or without the power of incumbency.
There are signs that the Team is not very enthusiastic about United Russia; as Putin said recently “Frankly speaking, United Russia, our leading political force, needs an influx of new ideas, proposals and people in these circumstances”. Medvedev has more than once called for more political competition. But, as long as United Russia is the dominant party for lack of competition, why would it ever want to be creative? All it has to do is agree and anticipate.
So, in a way, the Team is a victim of its success. In contrast to the Yeltsin period in which “pedestal parties” (eg Russia’s Choice, Our Home Russia) were cobbled together at the last moment and performed poorly, United Russia has been more carefully constructed. So the Team has a reliable base of support; but that base so dominates political discourse in Russia that the creativity necessary for Phase II (“qualitative change”) is stifled. Hectoring United Russia to be creative won’t change the reality that it is an association of apparatchiks and would-be apparatchiks.
Could my imagined 2008 scenario play out in next year’s presidential election? I believe that it is possible. I did not see much evidence of it – although the move of Sergey Mironov from the Federation Council to the Duma is interesting, as are his attempts to distinguish Just Russia from United Russia. If Just Russia were to run a credible Team candidate, it would offer a route out of the political stagnation that Medvedev and Putin complain about.
So I believe that the possibility of two Team candidates, one of them Medvedev and the other not Putin, each supported by one of these parties is something to watch for.
Putin’s future. I have no opinion on whether Putin will stay on as Prime Minister in the next presidential term. However, I believe that he has come to the end of his possibilities. He was the right man for Phase I (reversing the decline) but not so good for Phase II (qualitative change). And, as far as Russian’s image in other countries is concerned, as long as he stays in power, there will more years of speculation that “the ex-KGB officer” is really running the show. More of this would hinder the development of Phase II which requires a peaceful environment and outside investment.
When to make the declaration, I see a disagreement between Medvedev and Putin on the timing. Putin, ever cautious, has said he would prefer to get the Duma elections over with first; Medvedev keeps saying he will announce “soon”. What they both fear is the kratotropism of Russian officials. Should Medvedev declare, there will be a tendency to regard Putin as yesterday’s man and he will lose traction. Even more so, should Putin declare, then Medvedev would immediately become “nobody’s man”. On the other hand, it can be argued that the growing speculation frenzy can itself paralyze action. Thus the timing requires nice judgement and it is understandable that there could be different ideas about when to do it.
Election turnout. Russian electoral turnout, at least in presidential elections, is on the high side by world standards in the mid- to high-60s. US presidential turnouts have been gently drifting down to the low 50s; Canadian federal elections are also drifting down to the mid- to low-60s; British general election turnouts are similar and French presidential turnouts, while higher than the others, also show a downturn. Two common – and opposed – explanations are given for low turnouts: either disgust with what is on offer or acceptance of the probable outcome. Opinion polls, over many years and with many different polling organisations, suggest that Russians are generally content with their leaders. Thus it seems likely that the Russian turnout (somewhat inflated by improbable results, especially in Chechnya) will be at least in the 60s.