The Sticky Successor Problem
- By Alexei Bayer
- May. 19 2008 00:00
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Early on, the idea was mooted that Putin wouldn't alter the Constitution to avoid antagonizing the West, but would simply shift power to the prime minister's office. This is precisely how it has worked out -- but with a twist.
Putin clearly wants to step down. Had he wished to retain power, he would have changed the Constitution. He has never hesitated to alter Russia's political system; for instance, he nixed the direct election of governors. He has also demonstrated considerable disregard for foreign opinion. Putin's problem is that power in Russia is like a tar baby from an Uncle Remus folk tale: Once you embrace it, it's difficult to unlock its hug.
The Soviet system proved extremely durable and persistent, but it never resolved the problem of legitimacy. Monarchies derive legitimacy from divine right, while democratic governments rule because they embody the will of the people at the ballot box. But Lenin's Bolsheviks proposed a new legitimacy. Claiming that they knew how history moves, they declared themselves agents of an inevitable, objective historical process, charged with transitioning humanity from capitalism to its ultimate stage of development, communism.
Thus history -- albeit of a negative kind -- became the source of legitimacy for every Soviet ruler since Stalin. Each based his claim to power on the repudiation of his predecessor, who presumably tarnished the true Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Khrushchev expelled Stalin from the mausoleum, and then Brezhnev and his cohorts conspired to expel Khrushchev from the Kremlin. Andropov began investigating corruption in Brezhnev's entourage even before gaining power, and he would have jailed many of his former colleagues had he lived any longer. Gorbachev condemned the entire Brezhnev era as stagnation. Curiously, even now Putin feels compelled to kick Boris Yeltsin's 1990s as an era of poverty, the lawless rule of oligarchs and international humiliation.
Because of this odd way of asserting legitimacy, Yeltsin become the sole Russian ruler over the past century to leave power voluntarily. However imperfect, Yeltsin's Russia was a fledgling democracy. For the first time in centuries, Russia had open opposition and lacked both political prisoners and political immigrants. It all came to an end under Putin -- and now Putin can no longer leave power without fear of being attacked by his successor.
As the presidential election showed, the ballot box under Putin confers no true legitimacy. That previously unknown Medvedev could win a landslide victory confirms, as wags claim, that Putin could have run his Labrador Connie -- with similar results. And, of course, we all know the value of sycophantic praise lavished upon Putin by artists such as Nikita Mikhalkov, Duma lawmakers and the official media.
So, now Putin is forced to play political god. He has taken a handful of political clay and has shaped it into his successor. He hopes that Medvedev will grow into a living, breathing, functioning president. In the meanwhile, he will observe the process from the White House. If the experiment succeeds, Putin will safely rid himself of the tar baby of power.
The Russian presidency is a formidable incubator. It has made presidents of lesser men. Putin himself was picked by Kremlin insiders in 1999, presumably because he seemed willing to do their bidding. He then bit hard the hand that created him.
Putin should also recall the original story about the creation of man. No sooner was Adam able to walk than he disobeyed his Creator. God then expelled humans from Paradise -- probably just in time, before Adam and Eve could begin plotting to get rid of Him.
Alexei Bayer, native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.