Rain or Shine It's Still Putin Next Time

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Vladimir Putin will not step down as president in 2008 nor will he need to change the Constitution -- and all discussion about such occurrences for the next two years, albeit necessary and useful, will have very little chance of affecting actual events. In the end, Putin still might be the best choice and, if not, Russians will most likely remain indifferent to a third term in any case.

Democracy in Russia today is not sufficiently consolidated to provide a political and socio-economic environment conducive to a peaceful transition of executive power. Russia's current version of democracy does not compare easily or well with democracies in the West, which are deeply rooted in liberal tradition and thought; Russia's path of development may not, in fact, be pursuing the same ends. The legacy of totalitarianism is pernicious, more gravely affecting Russia's present transition than many dare to consider.

History has never been kind to Russia, and 2008 will not buck the trend. The most important election that year will undoubtedly be that for the U.S. presidency, where a transition of power will not depend on or be delayed by constitutional change. Beyond that, the world will be mesmerized in 2008 by the grandiosity of the Olympics hosted by China. This will distract attention from many of China's nasty problems; most discussions will concern whether or not China can maintain a totalitarian political state in the face of extensive economic change. Russia's fate will continue to appear vague and complex, and democratic challenges in Russia itself will be an afterthought to the dynamic Chinese puzzle.

The chance of a viable Putin-replacement candidate rising out the muck and mire of the muddled Russian transition is very small. The absence of any strong opposition party in Russia precludes the need for manufacturing such a candidate. If Putin, as some believe, is tutoring his successor, then it follows that in 2008 he will accept retirement in a struggling Russia.

But try to imagine a retired Putin in two years -- championing some social cause in Russia or, even more unlikely, traveling the world with a humanitarian agenda -- and it follows that even if a suitable successor were to be found, Putin would not be ready for retirement in a fledgling democratic Russia. But if your imagination can stretch that far, before picturing a new president, try picturing a new Russia in two years where there are at least two legitimate candidates running for president who are not communist or fascist. If such a possibility existed, the contenders would be apparent by now. The fact that names such as Kasparov, Khodorkovsky and Kasyanov are desperately being thrown around now strengthens the argument. Because the concern at hand is not who will run against Putin, but who will run instead of him, we return to the highly unlikely "retirement" scenario for any hope of a non-Putin ending.

Instead, it is far more likely that the most popular campaign slogan of 2008 will be the overused catch-all explanation Eto Rossia (That's Russia!) after Putin sidesteps the Constitution for a third term. Threats of public unrest, protest or even disgruntled discussions over the Putin administration tinkering with the Constitution will be minimal. This is true even though, in 24 months, there will be no noticeable positive changes in regards to pension arrears, rampant alcoholism, military ineptness and environmental degradation. In most democracies these would be reasons for new leadership, but in Russia, as is usually the case, these faults will not be attributed to Putin's failed leadership but instead to his administration, of which the need for a new prime minister will be agenda item No. 1.

By 2008, Putin will have the ultimate reason in Russia to remain president without changing the Constitution: economic crisis. With every economic adviser's reputation by then discredited (the fallout from the oil bubble bursting) and no desire to return to "the Chubais days," the people of Russia will come close to begging for a third term. All Putin needs to do is provide a reasonable argument for why changing horses in midstream is not wise during times of economic uncertainty. A majority of the voting populace will be more concerned about maintaining their cars, halting the slide in a (by then) dwindling real estate market and regaining access to lines of credit (that will dry up soon). Putin will not need a "yes" vote but simply an "I don't care." In a time of uncertainty, apathy is one of the only certainties in Russia.

Perhaps the least appealing of all reasons for Putin to continue after 2008 as president is the fact that Russians are tired of the perceived triumphalism of the West; many will likely acquiesce to a third term out of spite. Foreign assistance over the past 15 years has left an ugly track record of failed utopian experiments that will provide considerable cannon fodder on the campaign trail (a path that stretches little further than the Third Ring Road). Many observers have concluded that the current bill before the State Duma that may restrict the operations of foreign-based NGOs in Russia is a result of Western tampering in the most recent Ukrainian presidential election. Putin has no interest in allowing that to happen in his backyard. During the lame-duck years of the George W. Bush administration, there will be little U.S. concern about Russia's feelings and even less tolerance for alternative opinions. Putin has everything he needs to glibly stride past foreign onlookers to another term with Russians applauding all the way. With no clear policy toward Russia, the United States and its allies are helpless to influence real opposition to Putin's unconstitutional third term -- and Putin will use this, ironically, to demonstrate Russia's strength in 2008.

Finally, political inclusiveness is a critical element in creating democracy. All nascent democracies struggle to foster it, and even established democracies fail to maintain it evenly and all the time. Russia's overwhelming size and declining population play against the establishment of a well-connected and informed polity -- and these realities will not change any time soon. By all accounts, Russia's population will continue to fall, infant mortality will continue to rise, and the spread of HIV will continue to alarm. Rhetoric about a new president equipped to deal with these long-term challenges amounts to wishful thinking.

All that said, the picture is not unrelentingly grim. The inevitability of a third term for Putin does not necessarily signal a return to totalitarianism in Russia. The particular and peculiar Russian path toward representative democracy may not be to the liking of the West, but that is beside the point. Moreover, the near certainty over the outcome of the presidential election in 2008 does not require the "silent majority" to refrain from debate or discourage it from hoping for change. Even if Putin's intentions were deviously anti-democratic (which they most likely are not), time is working against the "managed democracy" approach.

Putin is no Hugo Chavez. And while his autocratic tendencies seem frightening at times, he is no Pinochet. Putin's failures in handling the Kursk tragedy, the Moscow subway bombings and the Beslan massacre are not only signs of a deteriorating closed hegemony but, more encouragingly, indicators that the costs of repression have become more burdensome than the costs of toleration. Yet, 24 more months is not enough to expend Putin's political capital. A third term, however, under the consistent scrutiny of a tiring public will thoroughly exhaust his resources.

Start preparing for 2012.

Jeffrey S. Lindstrom is the director of the Institute of Sustainable Development in Vladivostok.