ON AND ON. Apart from the fact that I was about as wrong as wrong can be in my election bet, I am not happy with Putin’s decision to return. I believe that leaders have a “best before date” – eventually they run out of their possibilities. The wise leader quits at the top of his game after having trained up his successors. But, having said that, who has ever done it other than Sulla or Washington? Not Thatcher, Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle etc etc. Putin, possibly the best leader that Russia has had in its thousand-year history, has, I believe, succumbed to the delusion that he is indispensible. Will he prove to be, as he evidently believes, the Ataturk or Lee Kuan Yew of Russia? Or merely the Turkmenbashi or Lukashenka of Russia? No one would say that he is stagnant now, but what about after six or twelve years more?
Although Medvedev said that this was always the agreement, it is possible that the ever-cautious Putin has come back because he fears the future and believes Russia will be better off with The Boss openly at the top of the power structure. Perhaps there is unrest in The Team that only Putin can settle (Kudrin’s departure suggests this could be the case). Perhaps he believes the apparent decline in support for United Russia can only be reversed by him (while he has often complained about the lack of initiative and creativity in United Russia, he has also said many times that it is a necessary instrument). Or does he foresee coming international troubles that will require his steady hand? (The next US President is likely to be a Republican with a reflexive antipathy to Russia. The EU – a vital trade and investment source – is melting down. The future of Belarus and Ukraine is iffy. China is rising. NATO is again re-drawing the map. The “Arab world” is in flux.) We still don’t know the details.
Many Russians don’t care about what people elsewhere think about them, but it does matter and it will affect them. The anti-Russia lobby, encouraged by the return of the “steely-eyed ex-KGB officer” (another six years of that as if Putin had never done anything else!!!) with whom they are strangely obsessed, will get a new impetus. (Here’s the first and it’s all there: pipelines, Politkovskaya, Stalinist, weakening Ukraine and even (!) the Third Rome). The lobby will agitate for protection for countries “threatened” by him. Will we see another push to expand NATO? Missiles in Poland? More support for Saakashvili the putative Nobel Peace Prize winner? More attempts to fiddle with the political balance in Ukraine and other neighbours? A constant drum-roll of bad and selective press reports that will scare off investment? This will affect the environment in which Russians have to live.
We have to ask whether Medvedev ever really was President. Or was he, as many said all along, just a placeholder, only there because of Putin’s unwillingness to violate the letter of the Constitution? If the system that Putin and his team created after the ruin of the Yeltsin years can only work with him in charge, then it doesn’t work.
I do not expect The Plan to change although its flavour will. Putin is less friendly to the West (and why wouldn’t he be? – endless NATO expansion, NATO throwing its weight around, still nothing on WTO or Jackson-Vanik, bogus “coloured revolutions”). And every case of prickly behaviour or scepticism about Western motives will be spun by the anti-Russia lobby as another threat.
There can be no serious doubt that the most impeccably fair and open election would return him with a huge majority – most Russians will be delighted at the return of such a proven and trusted leader. And, in his wake, United Russia (although with a lot of new faces) will sweep the Duma elections which have now been turned into a referendum on him. So the political system will be stable. But stability can become stagnation quite easily.
But I would have been more confident in the future of Russia had Medvedev run and Putin stepped back – perhaps as leader of United Russia – to keep an eye on things. It is necessary, for the long term, that Russia not be the personalist system that it has been for so long.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)