Good Instinct Is the Secret of Putin's Success

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President Vladimir Putin had a lot of interesting things to say at his news conference on Thursday. But the combined effect of all his statements taken together was decidedly more interesting than any excerpt you may have read.

Putin is indeed one of the most successful Russian leaders, so it is curious that as his last term comes to an end in May, he does not seem to know the reasons for his own success. It's not so much that the president doesn't understand the technical intricacies of his own economic policy (after all, politicians don't need to know such complicated details), but that he probably just doesn't think about the motivations behind his own actions over the past eight years.

But wait a minute. This sounds strange. Can a person be successful at what he does without understanding why? Sure, it happens all the time, and politicians and businessmen are good examples of this phenomenon. Most businesspeople will tell you they know everything there is to know about business, and they tend to look down at egghead economists. "What could someone who never leaves his classroom know about the real world of business?" many businessmen think.

Yet the difference between a practicing businessman and an economic theorist is like the difference between a bear and a biologist. Of course, a bear quickly masters all the ins and outs of daily survival. For example, he knows that if he stashes food away before winter comes on -- and if is able to diversify his stockpile -- he will be well-fed and happy when he comes out of hibernation. He has no need to analyze the reasons behind his behavior. It's all a matter of instinct.

In contrast, the biologist has a far deeper understanding of the bear's behavior. For example, he knows how the bear will react to a bad crop of blueberries or an unusually warm summer, but all that knowledge clearly won't help the biologist survive a winter on his own in the wild.

The same is true of politicians. When an economist analyzes a leader's economic policies, he may have a better grasp of the factors that drive the politician's choices than the politician himself.

There are two main motivations behind Putin's behavior during his eight years in office. First, he had fear that Russia would disintegrate even further than it did in 1991. The second motivation was fear for himself -- that is, fear that he could fall from power, perhaps by losing an election.

Most of Putin's actions as president can be explained one of these two concerns. His responses to the fear for Russia are clear. The president took steps to centralize authority within the country by building the vertical power structure. He also stabilized the situation in Chechnya and pursued an aggressive foreign policy. With regard to his fear for himself, however, Putin's responses were more varied. His dismantling of the fundamental institutions that are essential for a functioning democracy, such as the electoral system and freedom of the press, was clearly contrary to the interests of ordinary Russians -- even if they didn't recognize it as such.

On the other hand, Putin nationalized major companies, increased financing to the power ministries and reduced administrative barriers. A politician will instinctively initiate these kinds of measures because they help him preserve his power. Although these measures were popular with the people, the real reason that he made these decisions was the fear of losing power, even if he didn't fully recognize that this was his primary motivation.

Eight years later, Putin's power vertical is firmly in place, and the danger of losing power is extremely low. Now he can sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR, is a columnist for Vedomosti.