A Monopoly on Blame

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It's an ironic parallel. For eight years, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush have moved in tandem. Russia enjoyed two terms of Putin, whereas the United States had the pleasure of two terms of Bush.

But on Tuesday, the United States will move on. Bush will leave the nation depressed and dispirited, its economy stuck in the worst slump in nearly 80 years. Whether he will be judged by posterity as harshly as he has been by contemporaries or whether history will somehow exonerate him, he will be gone and his team in Washington will be replaced with new faces.

Not so in Russia. The country has had a new president for nearly a year, but Putin unquestionably remains the country's most powerful man. If he were to abdicate completely and become, as it has been rumored, the head of Gazprom, supreme power in Russia would likely migrate to the corner office of the state-controlled gas monopoly.

Since summer, Putin's legacy has begun to look as tarnished as Bush's in the United States. Putin offered a bargain to the Russian people: They would enjoy stability and growing prosperity but stay out of politics and away from big business in which Putin's friends, supporters and former siloviki colleagues were growing immensely rich. Now that the global crisis has undermined Russia's prosperity, the political model of the past decade is starting to strain. Even Putin's approval ratings are slumping.

Still, there is little chance that the political establishment will loosen its grip on power. On the contrary, President Dmitry Medvedev on Dec. 30 signed off on the first major changes to the Constitution since it was adopted in 1993, extending the presidential term from four years to six and parliamentary terms from four to five.

It may not be Medvedev who serves the new six-year term, but it will likely be someone from the same cast of characters. There is simply no one else in the country to take on the job. It is a tragedy for all of Russia, but it is also a major problem for the ruling clique.

In the United States, the Democrats have been out of power for eight years and were criticized during their time in opposition for caving in to the Bush administration. But when President-elect Barack Obama's transition team began filling vacancies in his government, they were presented with a vast reservoir of not only ideologues but competent and experienced advisers from Bill Clinton's administration.

In Russia, there is never any alternative to the existing ruler and his entourage. When communism collapsed in 1991, it became painfully clear that the new country had no one to govern except some ambitious young functionaries from the lower ranks of the Gorbachev team. Dissidents were a tiny protest movement consisting of disparate groups with neither a unifying ideology nor practical experience in government. During the 1990s, little political pluralism emerged, allowing the one organized structure from the Soviet era -- the KGB and other siloviki -- to stage a spectacular comeback during Putin's presidency. Putin's policies of strengthening the power vertical by eliminating opposition and abolishing gubernatorial elections helped perpetuate the political vacuum.

In this respect, Russia is in a worse position than Ukraine, where despite deep problems and political instability a representative democracy has taken root. As the current crisis worsens, the Kremlin is starting to realize that a monopoly on power also entails a monopoly on taking the blame when things go wrong.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.