The Magazine

He’s Back

Vladimir Putin, the once and future president of Russia.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Perhaps the best commentary on the news that Vladimir Putin will return as president of Russia next year, with placeholder-in-chief Dmitry Medvedev stepping aside for his longtime mentor, was offered in a caustic satirical poem in the three-times-a-week independent paper Novaya Gazeta by maverick writer Dmitry Bykov. Bykov recalled that, some two years ago, when interviewing think tank president Igor Yurgens—a leading drumbeater for Medvedev as Russia’s great liberal hope—he bet Yurgens a case of cognac that Putin would retake the presidency in 2012. In retrospect, he wrote, the outcome seems so obvious and the hopes pinned on Medvedev so flimsy that a pack of raisins would have been a fairer bet.

Cartoon showing Putin being the real Russian leader

DAVE MALAN

The announcement, made on September 24 at a convention of the ruling United Russia party, was a carefully scripted political farce. First, Putin nominated Medvedev to head the list of United Russia candidates in December’s parliamentary elections; then Medvedev urged the convention to support Putin’s candidacy for president in March; and, after a standing ovation, Putin returned to the podium to say that after his victory, Medvedev would take over Putin’s own current post of prime minister. 

While Putin can now reign at least a dozen more years, his fortunes are far from certain. In the absence of serious reform, lower oil prices would spell disaster for Russia’s economy and its budget. Even without such a drop, Russia faces growing poverty—according to official statistics, two million people have slipped below the poverty line in the past year—and unavoidable cuts in social benefits. (Some believe Prime Minister Medvedev is meant to be the designated scapegoat for these unpopular measures.)

What this means for the United States and its relationship with Russia also depends on a multitude of shifting factors. True, Putin has dabbled in coarse invective against Western and American perfidy, while Medvedev tends to talk a more pro-Western line. Yet the famous “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations has meant precious little in practice.

Moscow has continued to play enabler to the odious regime in Tehran and make a bogeyman of U.S. missile defense plans in Europe. Even its aid for American efforts in Afghanistan, which are important to Russia’s own interests, has been offset by moves to sabotage U.S. cooperation with neighboring states such as Kazakhstan. Some Russian commentators who have no love for Putin have opined that his return to the presidency is a good thing because it strips away naïve illusions about the nature of the Kremlin regime. They were referring to the illusions of Russian liberals, but perhaps some American foreign policymakers are in the same boat.

Whatever lies ahead, the obituary of the Medvedev “presidency” can already be written. The Kremlin reshuffle ends the nearly four-year debate on who really rules Russia and whether the phrase “President Medvedev” will ever be more than
a punchline. 

The joke, of course, is on the Russian political system: The ostensible point of the Medvedev interlude was to demonstrate that the new Russia was a free and open society with a democratic transfer of power. In the final year of Putin’s second term as president, there was rampant speculation that he would either seek a third term in violation of the Russian constitution or hand over his seat to a chosen heir. At a February 2007 press conference, Putin pointedly stated,  “There won’t be any heir, there will be candidates for president.”

A little over a year later, Russians voted for former deputy premier Medvedev, a Putin protégé whose first act upon accepting the nomination was to promise to appoint Putin as prime minister. Still, many observers, Russian and Western alike, eagerly searched for signs that Medvedev might reverse the country’s Putin-era slide toward authoritarianism. If nothing else, he did not have the KGB background Putin shared with most of his inner circle, and also seemed to lack Putin’s penchant for Soviet nostalgia. During the campaign, Medvedev, who had once taught law, spoke of securing the rule of law as Russia’s highest priority and asserted that politics should be guided by the principle that freedom is better than unfreedom.T

Yet by the time Medvedev took office in May 2008, it was clear that Putin—who had once testily informed reporters that he would leave with no prodding when his term was up—had no intention of going anywhere. Medvedev’s first 100 days ended with the Russia-Georgia war, during which Putin was unmistakably the man in charge: He was seen on television giving his putative boss “suggestions,” which the president duly implemented. 

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