(Op-ed) The New York Times, September 29, 2011 On Saturday, the world learned that Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s current prime minister and former president, will return to the Kremlin in May 2012. When Mr. Putin stepped down as president in 2008, handing the responsibilities of head of state to the newly elected Dmitri A. Medvedev, it did not diminish Mr. Putin’s personal authority. But it did increase the chances that Russia would evolve into a stable democracy over time. His return in 2012 will drastically reduce those chances.
Mr. Medvedev’s presidency, which began in May 2008, in many ways pushed the boundaries of Russia’s political system, which maintains democratic procedures without true democratic practices and allows its citizens free exercise of some human rights while severely limiting others. First, despite the tradition among the Russian political elite of ignoring constitutionally established rules, the presidency was shown to be a robust institution. Mr. Medvedev went from Mr. Putin’s right-hand man to semi-autonomous power center of his own upon taking office. Second, the very existence of two senior leaders with different styles and demeanors inserted a healthy uncertainty into Russian politics. A wider range of voices could be heard in policy debates, and a sense that the status-quo ways of doing business for the past decade (which Mr. Putin seemed to embody, and Mr. Medvedev appeared to question) seemed to be subject to greater scrutiny. Finally, the power transfer in 2008 demonstrated that Russia respected the 1993 Constitution’s ban on three consecutive presidential terms. It created a perception in the West that Russian politics were at last becoming normal — that despite all the warts of the Putin years, Russia would eventually adopt basic democratic practices, like the regular rotation of political leaders. This perception of progress toward Western-style politics under Mr. Medvedev allowed engagement between Russia and the West to intensify. And the American-Russian “reset” has been about more than security cooperation; it entailed a new American push to bolster Russian civil society, increase government transparency in Russia, and expand contacts between the two societies. Unlike nuclear arms control, these less visible efforts don’t generally make headlines, but they do help lay the foundations for pluralistic politics in the future. Mr. Putin’s return next year will reverse all of these positive trends. It will mark the complete personalization of Russian politics, and it will delegitimize both the presidency and political institutions more broadly. Russia’s political system will therefore be all the more dependent on the man himself, raising the stakes surrounding the next transfer of power — when Mr. Putin’s next set of term limits expire in 2024 — to potentially destabilizing proportions. (A presidential term will now be six years instead of four.) Another Putin presidency is also a powerful signal to the ruling class that the change Russia so desperately needs is, in fact, unnecessary. But solutions to the multitude of chronic problems facing Russia, from a seemingly uncontrollable insurgency in the North Caucasus to an unhealthy, shrinking population, will come only with the kind of innovation that emerges through open competition, debate and adept government responses to rapidly changing socio-economic circumstances. Mr. Putin’s decision says to the Russian elite: there’s no need to debate Russia’s future course, the only way forward is to continue the ways of the past. Finally, it will become far more difficult for the West to engage comprehensively with a Russian government that increasingly resembles a sultanate based on a personality cult. Even if no fundamentals have changed with Mr. Putin’s return, the perception has already shifted: Russia will find it harder to convince already skeptical publics in America and Europe that its politics and their politics aren’t so different after all. And Western policy makers will have to respond to that skepticism, no matter how beneficial (for Russia and the West) engagement with Russia has been. Mr. Putin may well continue Mr. Medvedev’s modest reforms, or even push through a more comprehensive program, but that will not undo the damage his return has done to Russia’s post-Soviet political transformation. By weakening Russia’s political institutions, curbing pluralism, and threatening ties with the West, Mr. Putin’s return has made the system he controls more brittle. And if, as President Obama said during his visit to Moscow in July 2009, “America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia,” then Mr. Putin’s return is no good for the United States either. © 2011 The New York Times