The Russian news is still at a trickle at least until next week. Still there are a few articles that have caught my eye.
The first is an editorial from Nezavisimaya Gazeta published before the New Year. The big news of 2007, NG says is that “Putin is staying . . . everything else derives from this.” But as NG I think rightly points out, Putin’s continued grip on Russian politics is no so much out of a personal desire for power. It is a result of the contradiction internal to the very system he’s presided over.
“Putin was unable to quit because of the impossibility of leaving behind — without himself — strong and strong-arm elite groupings competing strongly with each other. A struggle among influential clans, getting out of control, could very quickly become a factor in the degradation of what had been achieved. He probably knows better than anyone that his entourage does not contain a successor figure comparable with himself and capable of effectively controlling the elites.” (translation, JRL #3, 2008)
I couldn’t agree more.
The real question then is how will Russia’s new “dual power” with Medvedev as President and Putin as Prime Minister balance itself out. One option would be that it won’t. It’s possible that after Medvedev is firmly planted in his new role, Putin would gradually recede or be forced into the background. Another option is that the Medvedev-Putin dyad would set the tone for future Russian administrations. Many have suggested that Putin becoming the PM will undoubtedly strengthen that otherwise weak office. Whether this strengthening will be accomplished solely on Putin’s personal power or through the law remains to be seen. United Russia deputies have already hinted that the latter is a possibility and could be completed in 2008. As it stands, United Russia couldn’t do this alone. They currently have 315 of the 360 votes needed to amend the Constitution. I doubt however they would have any trouble mustering the final 45 from the Duma “opposition.”
Others, including Putin himself, argue that such changes aren’t needed to the Constitution and could be done within its existing framework. As Andrei Ryabov notes on Gazeta.ru, the past 14 years of Russian politics have seen a few cases where there “unexpectedly emerged a second decision-making center that has objectively nudged the system toward evolution in the direction of dualism of executive power.” All one need to do is remember the Prime Ministerships of Viktor Cheromyrdin, Evgenii Primakov, and to some extent Mikhail Krasyanov. Each commanded their own centers of power that at times was antagonistic toward the Presidency. The big difference now of course is that “relations between the future president and the future premier are close and friendly” and there are even suggestions that “they have already agreed how powers will be divided up in practice, irrespective of any rules or articles of the Constitution that might apply.” So I guess we can call this “dual power” not so much by law as it is by fiat.
Well enough of the sensible commentary for now. Now on to the absurd. And what a better place to turn than Edward Lucas? Lucas is clearly enraged that Time chose Putin as Person of the Year. Fine. I can accept that. I can also accept some of his criticisms of Putin and Time’s puff piece on him. What I wonder though, is it possible to air them without mentioning “Hitler” or Garry Kasparov as “the opposition leader”? Der Fuhrer makes his appearance by Lucas’ third sentence to bolster his suggestion that naming Putin Person of the Year is akin to when Time named Hitler in 1938. Kasparov canonization’s as the only oppositional force in Russia is so tired that bringing him up appears not only rote, but revealing to how little one understands Russian politics. So Time was soft on Putin? Big deal. They’re soft on everyone.
Lionel Beehner tries to convince us that Russia doesn’t matter to us Americans as much as we think. His reasons? Russia is not a “nuclear Wal-Mart.” It’s better to look at Pakistan for that. Russia maybe an energy powerhouse, but “little of its natural gas goes toward American consumers.” Russia’s economy is resurgent, but still “light years” behind Europe. It’s economy he claims “is still smaller than Portugal’s.” As for Russia’s pulling out of the CFE treaty, helping Iran with nuclear power, and forming military ties with China, don’t worry about it! Small fish in a big pond. Putin as dictator? C’mon it’s not like “dictatorship” came “out of left field”?
For Beehner, the only thing that makes Russia matter is its veto on the UN Security Council. But of course that is assuming that the UN Security Council matters. If Russia matters so little, does this mean that Beehner is going to give that grant he got in 2006 to research post-Soviet youth movements in Ukraine and Belarus back to the German Marshall Fund? Because if Russia doesn’t matter, surely the pettily youth in its “near abroad” does even less.
True, Americans should be more tuned into more pressing concerns around the world. But it shouldn’t be done at Russia’s expense. To reduce Russia’s relevance to its UN veto power is simply encouraging the dangerous myopia too many Americans are already so comfortable with.
Ahhh . . . the song remains the same. The Daily Telegraph is getting some mileage out of Andrei Illarionov’s assertion that Putin’s circle have raided Russia’s Stabilization Fund. Though as the Telegraph points out, Illarionov “gave no details of how this allegedly occurred.” If he has no details, then why is it a story? Especially when its based on Stanislav Belkovsky’s unsubstantiated claim that Putin is worth $40 billion. I liked Leonid Radzikhovsky’s response to Belkovsky’s claim. “It is difficult to understand Belkovsky. He is known as a source of confusing information and it is hard to treat it seriously. He is an adventurer.”
Still Putin’s alleged $40 billion tucked away who knows where still intrigues many. It’s also clear that if something is repeated enough it becomes true. Even if no one thinks they could ever actually prove it. Just take Yulia Latynina’s comments on Ekhko Moskvy. She said, “I certainly cannot imagine how [Belkovsky] could prove them, and I seriously doubt that anyone ever will be able to prove that the figure of $40 billion is correct.” Is correct? Perhaps we should start with identifying what Putin has rather than whether it’s $40 billion or not.
Vladimir Filin, who is Moskovskii komsomolets’ Ukrainian editor, thinks that the $40 billion story as just another Western attempt to add “some more demonic features to Vladimir Putin’s image in the West.” Maybe. Except I would think that given how much Americans are fascinated with rich people, the $40 billion might make him more likable in their eyes. If the Kremlin really wants to spin shit into gold, they should maybe book Putin on Cribs or even do a reality show called The Putins. After all, if he does have all that bling, he might as well put it to use and score of PR brownie points.