ILAN BERMAN: THE RETURN OF THE CZAR
It’s all over but the counting. Russia’s presidential election may still be some six months away, but the outcome of that contest is already crystal clear: a return of Vladimir Putin to the country’s top post.
On September 24th, Mr. Putin, who currently serves as Russia’s prime minister, ended months of fevered speculation about his political plans when he confirmed that he intends to stand anew for the country’s presidency—and that, if elected, he will switch places with his hand-picked protégé, current president Dmitry Medvedev.
That result is all but a foregone conclusion. Over the past decade, thanks to the machinations of Mr. Putin and his coterie, Russia has crept steadily back toward Soviet-style authoritarianism. Today, the “United Russia” political faction headed by Mr. Putin dominates the country’s political landscape and controls both houses of Russia’s legislature, while his loyalists stack virtually all meaningful leadership positions in Moscow and the country’s 83 regions. And with political power increasingly centralized in the Kremlin, divergent viewpoints are given less and less legitimate outlet. Dissidents and activists who do not accept the prevailing status quo have found themselves in legal jeopardy—or worse.
All this, moreover, appears to have occurred with widespread public approval. According to the most recent poll carried out by the private Levada Center back in January, Mr. Putin’s popularity (as well as that of Mr. Medvedev) stands at some 69 percent. And while Russian polling is not necessarily trustworthy, given the country’s increasingly controlled political climate, support for Mr. Putin’s particular brand of stability does indeed appear to be consistently high and widespread among most Russians. All of which, in turn, has given him fresh impetus to push for a monopoly on power.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Putin’s long-awaited announcement that he will seek a return to the presidency is simply logical. But that does not mean it is insignificant. To the contrary, it serves to demolish the fiction that has come to characterize the views of two key constituencies.
The first is the embattled liberal intelligentsia within Russia itself. Four years ago, Mr. Putin—facing a constitutional bar to reelection after having served two terms in office—chose to assume the post of prime minister and elevate Mr. Medvedev to the presidency in his stead. Since then, the young, soft-spoken president has come to be seen by many as the antidote to his predecessor’s strident, swaggering authoritarianism. Russia’s liberals seized upon the president’s infatuation with “modernization,” his Twitter- and Facebook-friendly media image, and his halting attempts to overhaul the country’s bureaucracies and business sector to claim that Mr. Medvedev, despite his pedigree, was a true reformer. These hopes were fanned by sporadic signs of substantive policy differences between the two national leaders. The results were predictable; as one liberal thinker, voicing the sentiment of many, told me in Moscow last winter, “We must support Medvedev… because the alternative is unthinkable.”
Mr. Putin’s announcement, however, makes abundantly clear that Russia’s ruling “tandem” is not, in fact, coming apart at the seams. Rather, while he may have deftly played Jekyll to Mr. Putin’s Hyde, Russia’s president is still far more an enabler of the prevailing power structure than an opponent of it.
The second casualty of Mr. Putin’s announcement is bound to be the Obama administration’s Russia policy. Over the past two years, the White House has diligently pursued a “reset” of relations with Moscow. That approach, with its emphasis on expanding areas of commonality with Moscow, has rested in no small measure on the presumption that Russia under Mr. Medvedev no longer saw itself as irreconcilably opposed to the West, the way it appeared to under Mr. Putin. As a result, the hope was that current, tactical areas of convergence between Moscow and Washington (on such issues as Afghanistan and arms control) could eventually expand into strategic ones. With Mr. Putin so clearly at the helm, however, such a fiction will be increasingly hard to maintain.
None of which means Washington is willing to give up on its ideas of a “reset” just yet. In the wake of Mr. Putin’s announcement, sympathetic commentators have rushed to downplay the destructive impact his presidency could have on U.S.-Russia ties. Thus, scholars like the Carnegie Endowment’s Matthew Rojansky have stressed that the West can take at least “some reassurance” from the managed nature of Russia’s upcoming transition.
Stability, however, is one thing; cooperation quite another. For much of the past decade, the United States and its allies have labored to bring an unruly Russia in from the cold, with precious little to show for their efforts. But while Mr. Medvedev stood at the helm, it was at least possible to imagine that a kinder, gentler Russia might materialize, if only given sufficient time. Under Mr. Putin, it will be exceedingly difficult to do so.
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