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God Save Putin

Putin as Alexander III

God save the noble Tsar!
Long may he live, in pow’r,
In happiness,
In peace to reign!
Dread of his enemies,
Faith’s sure defender,
God save the Tsar!

–“God Save the Tsar,” Vasily Zhukovsky, 1833

A few weeks ago, The New Times ran a story contemplating whether Putin had plastic surgery. “What happened to Putin’s face?” “Why does he look like a Udmurt?” bloggers asked after a photo shoot at Nashi’s camp Seliger revealed a glistening, pulled back Putin. Was it Botox? Plastic surgery? Putin did have that black eye back in October 2010, after all. He attributed it to a judo injury, as a mensch like himself would. But perhaps sanding down those wrinkles was part of a more long term plan?

As of yesterday, it’s now clear that Putin will need that new face as he’s set to dominate Russia’s news broadcasts for at least the next six years. Putin’s coming back to the Russian presidency, in case you haven’t heard. At United Russia’s Party Congress, current President Dmitry Medvedev all but resigned from his post with “I think it’s right that the party congress support the candidacy of the current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in the role of the country’s president.” As it stands now the tandem will switch seats with Medvedev as Prime Minister and Putin as President, again.

Six more years. Actually, more like twelve. The Russian Constitution forbids a President from serving more than two consecutive terms of six years (previously four, but that was changed in 2008, as many feared to extend Putin’s return to the throne.), so Putin could go at least another two. Putin, 58, will be 70 by the end of his additional twelve year reign. He will have directly ruled Russia for a total of twenty years. Twenty-four, if you count the four he (in)directly ran the place during the Medvedev interregnum.

Whether twenty or twenty-four, Putin’s rule will rival, but not exceed, that of many Russian leaders. Ivan Grozny ruled for 51 years; Peter the Great for 43; Elizabeth, 20; Catherine the Great, 34; Nicholas I, 29; Alexander II, 26; Nicholas II, 22; Stalin, 34; and Brezhnev 18. Historically, Putin’s 20 year run will not be out of the norm. The problem is that for a country that bills itself as a (sovereign) democracy and longs for appearing as a modern nation state of the 21st century, long reigns, let alone achieving them by cynically taking advantage of the Russian Constitution, looks bad. Really bad.

I was surprised that Putin is coming back. Sure, many had pointed out over the last six months or so that the alignment of the political stars suggested that Putin was going to make a big return. Others noted the Presidential switcheroo was on back in 2008 when Putin anointed the politically weak, and virtually obscure Medvedev.  But I thought that because Putin’s coming back would look so bad, not to the West (Russian domestic politics shouldn’t take it into consideration anyway) but because of what it says about the insecurity of the political elite and continued ossification of the Russian political system. Insecure because Putin’s return suggests that there is no one in the stable that could effectively confront the issues that plague Russia besides Putin. Only he gives the air of “stability” and whose “heavy hand” can save Russia from itself. It also proves that what I see as the contradiction of centralization in Russian politics. Basically, the centralization of power around one entity, Putin, with the belief that only he can effectively govern, weakens the pool of alternatives nodes of power necessary for the continuation of effective rule. But with those alternatives weak, Putin can only rely on himself thereby justifying nothing short of autocracy. By not allowing Medvedev a second term, not to mention the development of his power base, sets Russia up with a vacuum of leadership at best and possible gerontocratic stagnation at worst.

The threat of political ossification is clear. The threat to elite politics is real, but I think the backroom duels will continue after a period conservative euphoria. I agree with Comrade Rothrock that Putin’s return signals a defeat of the liberal party, but not the end of politics as such. The liberals might have learned that they need to unite and entrench themselves further. It certainly shows that experimenting with entities like Mikhail Prokhorov and Right Cause won’t do it. They need to burrow from the inside if they want to push their agenda. Another lesson is that Dmitry Medvedev is not their man, if he ever was to begin with. But playing interest group politics by lobbying the don has its limitations. The only way to real power and influence is to seek an ally willing to take down Putin.

But the rigidity of politics doesn’t just threaten the top. The threat is what it says to the public. Putin’s return removes the political charade that Russian politics can break out of its Byzantine forms, gradually whittle down the politics of personality and clans, and move toward more pluralistic practices. The decision for Putin’s return seems to have been totally Byzantine. This is at least how Medvedev himself explained it: “We already discussed this scenario back when we first formed a friendly alliance.” If this is true (a large part of me thinks it isn’t), then the last four years have been thoroughly delegitimized, let alone an utter cynical farce. The next six might also suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. As Aleksandr Minkin put it in Moskovskii komsomolets:

Tens (and possibly hundreds) of times you [Putin and Medvedev] were asked: “Who will be the next President?” You answered: “We will sit down and decide.” Here was a complete disregard to the opinion of the people, but, now it seems, this was also deceit. It seems that you decided a long time ago. Why such the cynical candidness?

You and Medvedev could have said something like: “We thought about what would be best for Russia all year long. We made a decision yesterday evening. . .”

It’s not important that people believed it. It’s important that decorum was kept. Why stand naked? No, with a smile which is customary that everyone excuse, Medvedev said that everything was decided and “deeply thought out” already in 2007, if not sooner. We don’t exactly know when “your friendly alliance was formed.”

All these years Medvedev said (it should be written “lied”) that the decision first and foremost was based on people’s opinion. But the decision was made beforehand. And the people were overlooked completely.

In fact, it seems that Medvedev and Putin were the only ones in on the joke. Medvedev’s team appears to have been in the dark. Even United Russia didn’t know who would be on their electoral lists before Medvedev’s announcement. United Russia, according to Stanislav Belkovskii, “has been proven once again not to be the ruling party, not a party at all, and not a political subject.” Moreover, Belkovskii continues, it has proved that “elections in the country have been practically eliminated” therefore no one needs to bother with them or even think about them. In regard to Russia’s long term process of political decentralization, well forget it. The process of “managed democratization” is now officially put on hold.

Sure, one will say: Putin is popular. The Russian people won’t mind. All the polls show that Putin is welcomed back to the Presidency. True, Putin is popular and there are very good reasons why. But this begs the perennial question about the Russian elites: If they are genuinely popular, then why do they have to scheme? Why do they delegitimize their power through subterfuge? What do they fear? The answer is that either they really aren’t that popular, or that even when secure they feel their grip on the country is tenuous.

The question that remains is which Putin will Russia get. As Putin, face pulled back, wrinkles a smooth veneer, thumbs through the annals of Russian history and contemplates the long reigns of his predecessors, what type of Tsar will he decide to become? Will it be the brutal modernizer Peter the Great always with club in hand? Will he be the enlightened despot a la Catherine? The politically arid Nicholas I? The modernizing police state of Alexander III? Or will he gaze deep into the portrait of Alexander II and unveil his grace through “liberal” reform.

We shall see.

But for now, God Save the Tsar!

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