By Mark Kramer (Op-ed) The New York Times, September 30, 2011
Forty years ago The Who recorded “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with the memorable lines “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.” The song came to mind with the events in Russia last weekend. Despite years of indications that Vladimir Putin would return as Russia’s president in 2012 after a four-year interregnum as prime minister, many commentators and public officials in Russia and the United States got “fooled again.”
They had been hoping that Dmitri Medvedev would stay on as president. Medvedev, they believed, was a more liberal and open-minded figure than Putin, whose initial eight years as Russian president from 2000 to 2008 brought Russia back to a much more authoritarian system. The Russian blogosphere featured endless petitions calling on Medvedev to run for reelection. The joint announcements by Putin and Medvedev last weekend at the ruling United Russia party convention put an end to those hopes. Both leaders said they had agreed long ago (in 2007, according to Medvedev) that Putin would return as president in 2012. It is impossible to know whether that’s true, but the fact that both Putin and Medvedev would declare that they agreed “long ago” that Putin would return reflects a striking degree of hubris. It implies that all the speculation about the Russian presidency over the past few years — among journalists, intellectuals, public officials, ordinary citizens and foreign observers — was a waste of time. Putin had repeatedly claimed that he and Medvedev would make a decision on the presidency in late 2011. The advisers to Medvedev who openly urged him earlier this year to run for reelection — and who now presumably will be excluded from any role under Putin — must feel that their boss deceived them and left them hanging out to dry. Why were so many Russians and foreigners (including some senior figures in the Obama administration) “fooled again”? Much of it was wishful thinking. After the Russian Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment in 2008 that extended Russia’s presidential term to six years, there was little reason to doubt that Putin would return as president in 2012. If he had waited until 2018, a lot of uncertainties would have arisen. Back in the Kremlin, Putin will most likely seek to implement at least a few meaningful economic reforms, in a throwback to the important economic changes he adopted in 2000-2002. He also may try to reduce the corruption that he himself has done so much to foster. But there is no reason to believe that he will return to a more democratic political system. Nothing that Putin has done suggests that he has any desire to convert Russia into a genuine democracy with meaningful political competition, free and fair elections, respect for civil liberties and observance of the rule of law. The extraordinarily opaque manner in which Putin made his decision to return as president is indicative of his aversion to democratic politics. Political power in Russia is now more concentrated in the hands of one man than it has been at any time since Stalin’s death. No Soviet official after Stalin could have decided on his own to become the supreme ruler of the country, as Putin has now done. Russia today is still much freer than it was in Soviet times, but the concentration of political power and the lack of public accountability are very troubling for Russia’s future. Even if Putin were not so uncomfortable with the vicissitudes of democratic politics, the massive redistribution of property that has occurred during his reign militates against any political liberalization. Putin and his cronies (many from the former KGB), who have been greatly enriched under his rule, have a stake in doing everything they can to consolidate and protect their gains. They also want to prevent the losers (such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky) from ever being able to challenge them. Russia will thus remain what the academics Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have described as a “competitive authoritarian” regime — a regime in which “formal democratic institutions” and rules exist, but “incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent…that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.” The concept implies that if the economic situation under Putin goes badly awry after he resumes the presidency (a realistic enough prospect, given the volatility of the global economy), Russians might seek to hold him accountable, using what remains of the national electoral channels. The concept also implies that Putin and his cronies will resort to any means to protect their wealth. In these respects, Russia will be something like Venezuela under Hugo Chávez or Belarus under Aleksandr Lukashenko. It will not be like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe or Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi, but it will be a stifling enough version of warmed-over authoritarianism. If Putin remains in office until 2024, he will have outlasted at least four U.S. presidents and possibly six. He will also have outlasted three generations of Chinese leaders. He will have been in power for as long as Stalin was. Meet the old boss. © 2011 The New York Times A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 1, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: The Past and Future Putin.