Insight by PONARS Eurasia Members Originally appeared on The Monkey Cage
Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Analyst, Center for Naval Analyses There has already been some loose talk about the potential negative impact of Putin’s return on U.S.-Russian relations. On the contrary, I think this move in and of itself will have very little impact on bilateral relations or on overall Russian foreign policy, for that matter. Russia was not ruled by Medvedev over the last 3.5 years, and it will not be ruled exclusively by Putin over the next six. The Russian leadership is in some sense a collectivity, with Putin acting (in the words of Olga Kryshtanovskaia) as primus inter pares among a group of 4-6 top leaders who together make the decisions. In this environment, the current foreign policy course has to have been supported by the leadership, and by Putin in particular. There’s no reason to think he will want to change it as president. Russia will continue to seek to cooperate with the United States on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation activities and will provide an increasingly important transit route to Afghanistan. At the same time, Russian leaders will continue their sporadic efforts to find a way to integrate their country into Western security institutions, though most likely with no more success than they’ve achieved to date. To be sure, the atmospherics may be somewhat different. Several Russians I’ve spoken to about Putin’s decision argue that the main difference between him and Medvedev is in their style, rather than their substance. I have no doubt that Putin’s rhetoric will at times cause a great deal of consternation in the West and in the United States in particular. In these circumstances, it will be especially important to focus on Russian actions, rather than their rhetoric, in order to avoid an over-reaction that would derail aspects of the relationship that provide concrete and significant benefits to the United States.
Yulia Nikitina, Moscow State University of International Relations There are two possible explanations of this decision. The first one is about legitimacy. Putin has a greater national legitimacy – he really is a national leader. And Medvedev has a greater international legitimacy as he is perceived abroad as a more liberal ruler. So the choice between two candidates was actually the choice between internal and external legitimacy because on the whole Putin and Medvedev have no major controversies over Russia’s future. As Russia is a country of signals, Putin’s return to the Kremlin is a signal that “Arab spring” scenario for Russia will not work. In its turn, it means that Russian authorities are really afraid of the possible social unrest and that civil society is really there. The second and more simple explanation is that from the very beginning Putin was going to return to the Kremlin for the next two terms and this view is shared by most Russian experts. And life is always simpler than we think.
Ivan Kurilla, Volgograd State University The situation now is less defined than it was in 2007/08 or 2003/04. Today NYT published pretty fatalistic commentary on inevitability of Putin’s comeback. While that scenario is very probable, I believe that there is still room and time to avert it (for dissatisfied part of the elite, as well as for activist organization which, of course, could not take place – but look at the economic crisis). This is a wishful thinking, but if the wish is strong… We’ll see something on the elite side even before Duma elections.
Andrey Makarychev, Free University of Berlin I fully agree with those experts arguing that Russian (post-)political process is explicitly under-institutionalized. Yet the forthcoming Medvedev – Putin job swap adds to this a sense of a logical flaw: Medvedev who was proposed to head the “United Russia” party ticket in December parliamentary election will in fact have to step down afterwards, instead of running for presidency in March, which would be more logical for a leader of winning party (at least, in canons of Western democracy). This controversy contains one more logical trap: in fact, the President – Prime Minister collusion can (and, formally speaking, should) be interpreted as the recognition of the failure of Medvedev’s presidency (should this not be the case in a well functioning democracy, why a successful president should not run for his second term?). Another important issue that was unveiled by the Putin–Medvedev deal is – again, unnatural for democracies – the almost complete lack of new political leaders that would make careers within the existing political institutions. Since Putin came to power in 2000, new faces were unwelcome in Russian politics. The recent “operation” of substitution of Valentina Matvienko by Grigory Poltavchenko as the mayor of St.Petersburg is quite revealing in this regard. Institutions are dysfunctional because of their inability to renew political elites. As far as those of Western experts (Alexander Rahr and Dmitry Simes, among others) who rushed in their interviews to Russian TV to celebrate the prospects of “certainty” and “predictability”, I would like to remind that it was Vladimir Putin who challenged the legitimacy of anti-Gaddafi military operation, questioned the expediency of innovative visa facilitation arrangements for Kaliningrad, and ultimately was denied the honor of receiving the prestigious Quardiga Prize in Berlin. The EU nowadays has a good chance to politically confirm its commitment to a “normative power” status, despite luring “business-as-usual” pragmatism so cherished by Putin himself.
Mark Kramer, Harvard University Earlier this year, numerous commentators in Russia and the United States were expressing confidence that Dmitry Medvedev would stay on as Russian president. My own view, as I wrote at the time, was that this was nothing more than wishful thinking. After the Russian parliament adopted constitutional amendments in 2008 that extended the presidential term to 6 years, I felt it was clear that Vladimir Putin was going to return as president in 2012. If he had waited until 2018, a lot of uncertainties would have arisen, not least that he would be in his mid-60s by then (he was born in October 1952). The announcements by Putin and Medvedev on Saturday at the Edinaya Rossiya congress resolved the matter. Both leaders said they had agreed long ago (presumably in 2008) that Putin would return as president in 2012. If what they say is true, it reflects a striking degree of hubris. Even as Putin and Medvedev allowed journalists, intellectuals, public officials, ordinary citizens, and foreign observers to engage in endless speculation over the past few years, the two leaders already had things planned. The acolytes of Medvedev who were openly urging him to run for president in 2012—and who now presumably will be excluded from any role under Putin—must feel that their boss betrayed them and left them hanging out to dry. Most likely, after Putin is elected president again—his election is a foregone conclusion—he will seek to implement some economic reforms (in a throwback to the important economic reforms he adopted in 2000-2002) and will try to reduce the corruption that he himself has fostered. But there is no reason to believe that he will return to a more democratic political system. Anyone who is expecting him suddenly to become a democratizer is going to be disappointed. Nothing that Putin has done over the past twelve years 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—a decision he said he and Medvedev had agreed on “several years ago”—is indicative of his profound aversion to democratic politics and of the dubious nature of political institutions in Russia. 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. Russia is still much freer than it was in Soviet times, but the concentration of political power in a single leader and the relative 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 during his reign militates against any liberalization. Putin and his cronies, who have been greatly enriched under his rule, have no incentive to accept any measures that would lead to public scrutiny of their wealth. The redistribution of property has created both winners and losers, and the winners (many from the former KGB) have a stake in doing everything they can to consolidate and protect their gains. They also want to prevent the losers from ever being able to challenge them. Russia will thus remain what 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.” Although the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” may not be fully satisfactory, it does have considerable use in thinking about Russia over the next decade. The concept implies that if the economic situation under Putin goes badly awry over the next six years (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 make a staunch effort to hold onto power even if their policies prove deeply unpopular. They will resort to any means to protect their wealth. In these respects, Russia will be something like Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Belarus under Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and Rwanda under Paul Kagame. It will not be like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe or Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov or Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi, but it will be perilously close to Kazakhstan under Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Sufian Zhemukhov, Visiting Scholar at George Washington University’s IERES Why so fast and so simple? That is the question. The way Vladimir Putin was announced as a candidate for the next Russian presidential election was unexpected due to two reasons. Firstly, it came out earlier than anticipated – that is, before the parliamentarian elections. Secondly, the simplest possible scheme out of all possibilities was chosen , or rather it seems that nobody thought it would be so simple. Both the speed and simplicity of the decision suggest that the situation inside the Russian elite has been becoming more and more unstable because of the uncertainty of who will be the next president. Actually, early announcements as a stabilizing method of change of power has been used during most appointments and reappointments of the governors of the Russian regions and, in the same pattern, recently, Valentina Matvienko was announced to become the Speaker before she was even elected as a member of the Sovet Federatsii. It seems that the situation inside of the elite has been so unstable that the tandem decided to reveal their intentions earlier to provoke and resolve the problems long before the presidential elections and chose the simplest scheme because of the fear of complicating the situation even more. Right after the announcement, a surprising conflict between president Dmitri Medvedev and minister Alexei Kudrin happened that proved the seriousness of the problems inside the elite. The resignation of the latter showed the determination of the Tandem to resolve all similar challenges.
Georgi Derluguian, Northwestern University Putin’s self-renomination begs a quote from Karl Marx: Second time, a farce. But possibly worse than farce. The Russian economy in the last 20 years has grown grotesque disproportions atop the irrationalities inherited from late Soviet period. I mean outsized retail and service sectors not to mention the export-oriented mineral extraction with very little real investment in infrastructure, industrial modernization and human capital. Basically, Russians and above all the elites were allowed to consume and not to save more than perhaps any Western counterpart. A major unknown, then, is how would Putin’s notoriously inefficient and venal ‘vertical of power’ fare in the face of world economic turmoil? Retrench and pray for high oil prices, collapse in the face of protests and elite defections, or turn into a developmental dictatorship of savings? Still more unknown is what could be the ideologies and mobilization resources of the opposition in the eventuality of catastrophic crisis with such daily-life occurrences as electrical shutdowns and industrial accidents.
Regina Smyth, University of Indiana and currently a Fullbright Scholar in Moscow The most surprising aspect of President Medvedev’s coronation of Prime Minister Putin at the United Russia party conference on September 24 was that it happened at all. Until this point, Mr. Putin’s political strategy has been to deploy uncertainty to keep his political opposition off guard. Both in terms of parliamentary and presidential elections, the Putin team has waited until the last moment to reveal its intentions. This strategy placed considerable burdens on the political opposition, forcing them to organize to face a number of different contingencies or risk being unprepared for the eventual reality of the eventual contest. The likely effects of this new “early and often” strategy are significant. First and foremost, Mr. Medvedev’s announcement firmly links presidential and parliamentary elections, placing Mr. Putin and his team at the center of political debate. The clear link between the President and his party will shift political debate in parliamentary elections away from concrete policy issues to the effectiveness of Mr. Putin and his team, highlighting the electoral themes of stability and government efficiency that have been so effective to this point. Against the backdrop of the chaotic political conflict between President Yeltsin and his parliaments, Mr. Putin will be the only candidate who can promise that his policies will receive parliamentary support. Since a number of regional elections will be held contemporaneously with regional elections, this logic of political support will also extend through the regions as Mr. Putin’s coattails drag along skeptical voters. Yet, while this confluence of forces is likely to create an electoral boost for United Russia in December it cannot be the entire explanation for the strategic shift. Nor can Mr. Medvedev’s claim that he was implementing a long ago agreed upon plan explain the timing. In fact, the announcement seemed unnecessary in a race whose outcome is thought to be a foregone conclusion. After all, since UR consolidated in 2002, electoral opposition has been largely impotent in the face of UR’s control of state resources and resulting capacity to redistribute of wealth to key constituencies to gain vote support. There is no political personality on the landscape who might rival Mr. Putin’s voting-getting capacity, even Mr. Medvedev. Likewise, any organization seeking to encroach on UR’s territory would have to redefine political debate and open a new dimension of competition around either corruption or individual liberties. Both possibilities seem very unlikely given public opinion. Mr. Putin’s candidacy may well be designed to stifle the elite political support for Mr. Medvedev that was beginning to redound within the inchoate party system. The quick rise and fall of the Right Cause affiliation with NJ Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was marked by a very public attack on Mr. Putin’s successful political strategist, Vladislav Surkov. The dormant right-center party, Yabloko undertook a revitalization program under their former leader, Grigory Yavlinsky. Public opinion polls suggest that voters also sensed the potential for political change as their assessments of the tandem declined and support for United Russia wilted. While is it unlikely that Mr. Medvedev was tempted to assert independence, Mr. Putin wanted to put an end to any activity designed to undermine his legitimacy or ignite latent political forces. It is clear that the Kremlin wants to avoid the need for blatant fraud that might lead to post-election protest. Yet, linking three levels of elections through a common political party also creates significant demands on the United Russia organization. Increased linkage brings increased potential for party accountability. The party will now have to solve thorny and sometimes contradictory problems such as creating paths for policy innovation, sustaining loyalty among members and devising a path for new leadership to emerge. While the party appears to be beginning to address these concerns, it is slow going and fraught with problems. Failure to address them in the longer term could push politics back into the streets as economic and political stagnation riles Russian voters who have heightened expectations of their government. In the end, the tandem had some to gain and little to lose by making an early announcement of Putin’s candidacy. The decision to announce reflects the Kremlin’s caution and as well as its ongoing concern about popular backlash against heavy-handed tactics. Mr. Putin’s strategy has created even more certainty about the outcome and made have created incentives that will strengthen his institutional base through the next term. [Note: Professor Smyth’s opinions are entirely her own and do not reflect the opinions of either the Fulbright Organization or the US Department of State.]