Tsarist Notions of Power

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For those who still wondered who President Vladimir Putin is, the mystery is over. His actions last week show that he is Russia's new autocrat. He is a tsar pure and simple.

The seven years since Putin assumed power in the Kremlin have been a time of conflicting signals. On one hand, he appears to be an educated and dynamic leader committed to modernizing the country. On the other hand, with the help of the military-industrial KGB complex -- the siloviki -- he has systematically weakened or destroyed every check on his personal power, while strengthening the state's ability to violate citizens' constitutional rights.

Last week, Putin told the United Russia party that he will place his name at the top of its ballot for the State Duma elections scheduled for Dec. 2, which could enable him to become the nation's new prime minister after the presidential election due in March 2008. Of course, as he put it, the people will have to elect as president a "decent, competent, effective, modern person with whom it would be possible to work in tandem." But what that really means is that Russia will have to choose a man Putin has hand-picked to do his bidding.

If this scenario comes true, it will be a sad day for the country, but not because Putin will be retaining power -- something everyone knew that he would. True, Putin has concentrated in his own hands more decision-making authority than at any time in the nation's post-Soviet history. But most Russians think he is a great leader, crediting him with taking the country from the bankruptcy and despair of the Yeltsin era to wealth and prosperity in just seven years. Poll after poll puts his approval ratings at more than 70 percent.

Putin, quite genuinely, holds contradictory views. He simultaneously advocates multiparty democracy and centralized power. He favors a free economy, but he wants the state to control how wealth is allocated and who benefits from it.

Like their president, most Russians see no contradiction between improving their personal lives and the country's international status since the 1990s and the erosion of democratic institutions. Of course, the formal institutions of democracy remain in place in the country, but, in the absence of a free press, an independent judiciary and free elections in the regions -- where Kremlin cronies like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov now hold sway -- they have been hollowed out. Russians would rather have a "father of the nation," no matter the title -- tsar, general secretary, president or prime minister -- than follow laws and rules. Putin's political genius is to have recognized this.

Even if Putin has found a way to retain power without amending the Constitution -- a possibility that was endlessly speculated about by the country's dwindling band of democrats -- the undemocratic nature of his strategy is glaringly obvious. Moving from one high office in the Kremlin to another in the White House is merely a technicality. Putin will be tsar no matter what office is formally his own.

What will make this work is that, like any good KGB man, Putin is a master of facades. It has been said that presidential democracy only strengthens a Russian political culture that tends to favor rulers with a "strong hand," whereas a parliamentary system would allow for a more "horizontal" distribution of power. So any future Prime Minister Putin will be able to say, "Hey, I rule under the ultrademocratic Italian parliamentary model." What could be more democratic?

But if Putin, who has spent seven years "verticalizing" power in order to restore the stability and pride lost during Yeltsin's "democratization" of Russia, really wanted to secure the good of his country, he would follow in Yeltsin's footsteps and exit the scene. For the lesson of the years of Communist misrule is this: No one man or party can know enough to manage a modern economy. Only democratic systems and free markets provide the essential signals that a government needs in order to act efficiently.

After all, the good of democratic structures is their predictability. Only the Russians, with their devotion to the rule of a strongman, still insist on the importance of the role of personality in history. By contrast, successful democracies believe that nobody is irreplaceable. After Sept. 11, 2001, many New Yorkers wanted Mayor Rudy Giuliani to remain in office. But democracy required an election, and many now argue that the current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has performed even better than Giuliani might have done in reviving the city.

So, if Putin is concerned about Russia, he should abandon his tsarist notions of power and leave high office if not politics altogether. Like other democratic leaders, he might consider working in the private sector, like Gerhard Schr?der, or, better yet, write books and help tsunami victims, like Bill Clinton, or become an environmentalist, like Mikhail Gorbachev.

But this seems to be too much to ask of ex-KGB man Putin, for whom there can be no distinction between losing power and leaving it gracefully.

Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School in New York. Her new book, "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics," will be published this fall. This comment appears © of Project Syndicate.