A Teflon Putin for Your Grandkids to Admire

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Vladimir Putin will still be president when our grandchildren are growing up.

I reached this conclusion after observing how President Dmitry Medvedev and the State Duma rushed to extend presidential terms to six years. Even if no early presidential election is held, Russians will once again be able to vote Putin into the Kremlin in 2012, when Medvedev's term is supposed to end. If Putin is re-elected to a second term in 2018 and retires from office in 2024, he would still be younger than former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was when he left the White House. This scenario is entirely plausible.

During Medvedev's Nov. 15 presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, he offered a very interesting answer to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's question about why the presidential term needed to be increased: "Maybe in 30, 40 years the problems faced by our government will be resolved and we can go back to the previous term of office, but this will not be my problem." Putin may not have 30 or 40 years left at the helm (in 40 years, he would be 96 years old), but Medvedev gave a clear indication, nonetheless, that Putin will be around a long time to help solve all of the country's systemic problems.

The Kremlin, which is quite gifted at manipulating elections, almost always gets what it wants -- whether it is handing the presidency to Medvedev or giving United Russia an overwhelming majority in the Duma.

That might be acceptable during stable times, but not during a global financial crisis that is snowballing out of control. Back in May, when the RTS Index stood just shy of 2,500 points and oil cost almost $150 per barrel, who would have thought that within just half a year the stock market would have lost 75 percent of its value and the price of oil would have fallen below $50 per barrel?

And yet Putin still enjoys an incredible 86 percent approval rating, according to the Levada Center, which has never been known for tweaking its numbers to flatter the authorities. We have a Teflon-coated prime minister -- not even the financial crisis sticks.

But where is the guarantee that it won't begin sticking a month from now?

Since 2000, Russia's entire political system has been held together by a single thin thread -- Putin's high ratings. The Kremlin is therefore thinking about how it can save him from getting hit by the disastrous political and economic consequences once the crisis gains full strength.

There are a few options. If Putin's popularity ratings remain high, he can hold out as prime minister until the end of Medvedev's current term and then return to office as president.

On the other hand, if his ratings begin to falter, the authorities can quickly organize an early presidential election. How? Most experts agree that Medvedev could step down, arguing that he wants to give the people the right to use the new Constitutional right to elect a leader to a six-year term.

But it is by no means certain that Putin has firmly decided to return quickly to the presidency. Putin typically acts slowly. The more difficult the decision, the longer he mulls it over, weighing all the pros and cons, waiting until the last possible moment -- all the while leaving himself plenty of room to maneuver.

Even if Medvedev is ready to vacate the presidential chair at any moment, Putin will probably take his own time in deciding exactly when and how he will put that plan into action. You can't, in fact, exclude the possibility that Putin will nix altogether any plan to return to the presidency before 2012. After all, with an economic crisis raging, oil prices plummeting and the political risks growing daily it may be too risky to force early elections.

I remember when in 1965 as a child during the early years of Leonid Brezhnev's rule, I opened my first history textbook. On the very first page, it was written that the Communist Party will finally deliver true communism, which was understood as a modest middle-class standard of living for everyone, to the current generation of Soviet citizens. But by the time 1980 rolled around and I had graduated from university, married and started working, communism should have been in place -- or some of its basic elements should at least have been visible. But we saw nothing even close to the communism we were promised, and the same old, decrepit rulers were still in power.

Could it really be that history, as Karl Marx is reputed to have said, repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce?

If Putin returns to the presidency, his number of years as leader could total 25 years. In the 20th century, only Stalin ruled the country that long. Even Brezhnev's seemingly never-ending rule was shorter. Brezhnev was in power for 18 long years, and his bankrupt policies continued another 2 1/2 years under his successors, Yury Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

The worst thing about Brezhnev's stagnation period was witnessing how the leaders rarely changed. We knew there was no use waiting for any substantial progress as long as the same people remained in office -- leaders who only grew older and, in some cases, senile. At the same time, most people clung to one hope. Since everybody understood that change could only begin at the top, we looked at the faces of the Politburo members who gathered at official events, and we tried to guess who among them might be a reformer -- someone who might be able to introduce even basic changes to the rigid and rotten Soviet system.

It seemed at first that our prayers were answered when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985. Those hopes came crashing down, however, when the price of oil dropped several years later. Despite introducing unprecedented political reforms and freedoms that the people had craved for decades, Gorbachev was unable to hold onto power. Gorbachev lacked not only petrodollars, but also political willpower and strength of character. On the other hand, that might have been a good thing. Had a more authoritarian leader than Gorbachev been in power -- someone like Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Yugoslavia -- Russia might have ended up awash in blood.

Today, Russians who are tired of the country's longstanding social stagnation look at the people close to Putin and Medvedev and try to guess who among them might possibly become the next Gorbachev? They also hope and pray that this leader doesn't turn out to be a Russian Milosevic.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.