Putin Should Follow George Washington

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President Vladimir Putin showed the world how powerful he really is when he gave the world a signal that he would be willing to become Russia's prime minister. If he vacates the president's office as he is scheduled to do in May, Putin would be the only Russian leader since Stalin to leave office more popular at the end of his term than he was at the beginning. The other leaders either died or left out of favor; Khrushchev even had to endure a form of house arrest. Today, between 70 and 80 percent of the public support Putin.

Putin is supremely confident and proud of his accomplishments, especially the fact that Russia is more stable and prosperous today than it has ever been, not only under the tsars but in Soviet and post-Soviet times. This is by no means Putin's achievement alone. Russia's current prosperity is almost entirely due to the fact that when Putin was appointed prime minister, oil prices were below $15 per barrel and today they hover around $100 per barrel, a critical difference for a country where oil and gas generate more than 60 percent of its export earnings. While certainly not everyone has benefited equally, and some have not benefited at all, the population as a whole is financially better off than it was nine years ago when the country was bankrupt, many of its banks collapsed, its debts were disavowed and its ruble shunned. By contrast, Russia's treasury today is overflowing with dollars and euros. Almost all of its government debt is paid off, its gross domestic product is growing at close to 7 percent a year, and by 2010, the GDP is expected to double from what it was a decade earlier.

Although Putin is very popular at home, in the West he is seen as a throwback to an earlier, more authoritarian era. During his tenure, he re-established control over the country's major televison networks and most of the more widely circulated newspapers. He has effectively neutered whatever meaningful political opposition that has remained, and he has reinstituted state control and ownership over many of the recently privatized industries, creating what he calls "national champions." As an example, the state's share of petroleum production rose from 20 percent in 2000, to close to 50 percent today. None of this seems to upset most Russians. If anything, they seem to approve of Putin's overall strategy. Putin has also won public support for the way he suppressed the Chechen drive for independence and repressed many of the original oligarchs.

Russians are again proud of the way that the country has re-emerged as a world power, asserting its interests in Asia and Europe and using its oil and gas exports to intimidate existing and prospective consumers. After years of feeling taken for granted, and at times duped, by other world leaders, many Russians relish the way Putin has turned the tables. Now he criticizes the United States as well as NATO for its expansion, something, we are reminded, Washington had promised it would not allow NATO to do. Moreover, ignoring the way the government has trampled on human and civil rights in his own country, Putin has taken to criticizing the United States and Europe for the way the West harasses foreign visitors and immigrants, disregards citizens' habeas corpus rights and tortures prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib. As Putin said when he met with Western reporters on the eve of a Group of Eight summit in June, "Let's look at what happens in North America -- the sheer horror of torture, the homeless, Guantanamo and keeping people in custody without trial or investigation. Look at what's going on in Europe: the harsh treatment of demonstrators, the use of rubber bullets and tear gas ... the killing of demonstrators in the streets ... complete violation of the Constitution and the law ... After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there are no [other democratic leaders] left to talk to."

To top it off, many in Russia are delighted in watching the United States dig itself deeper and deeper into Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, it wasn't that long ago when the roles were reversed and it was the Soviet Union that seemed hopelessly enmeshed in Afghanistan.

Having led the country out of its economic and political wilderness, the question for Putin -- Russia's modern-day Moses -- is how best to sustain this transformation. Putin has stated dozens of times that to stay on for a third term as president would require a constitutional amendment, and that would be "destabilizing," as he put it. At the same time, given his popularity with the people, he has come to understand that if he were to leave the government, that would also be destabilizing, particularly because there seems to be no obvious successor.

No doubt he hears similar arguments within the Kremlin. Already one faction of KGB veterans is feuding publicly with a rival faction as each seeks to gain the upper hand. Each faction fears that its rival clan might seize some of its valuable perks and huge corporate assets. This is particularly true with respect to managerial positions in the renationalized energy and metals industries that Putin has turned over to his friends and colleagues.

Most likely, it was a combination of these factors that led Putin to seek some way to stay on in the center of power without amending the Constitution. For many Russians, Putin has become an indispensable person. Taking over the post of prime minister seems to be the solution -- at least in the short run.

In the long run, however, it would be better if Putin decides that for the good of his country, he should establish the precedent that even the most popular president must not only adhere to the Constitution, but step down after two terms and make way for new leader. Putin would do well to follow George Washington's example. Popular as he was, Washington realized that it was important that the country's leaders not stay in office too long. He therefore refused to stay on for a third term, leaving government service completely.

If he really cares for the well being of his country, Putin should do the same.

Marshall Goldman is professor of economics, Emeritus at Wellesley College and senior scholar at Harvard University's Davis Center. His new book, "Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia," will be published in April.