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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Missing the Bigger Picture

Some politicians regard the 2008 presidential election as a watershed event of almost mystical significance. Others see it simply as the end of the world. Everyone is trying to figure out whether President Vladimir Putin will leave office on schedule. If he goes, what will happen next? And if he stays, where will that leave the Constitution?

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I suspect that Putin himself wrestles with these questions no less than the rest of us. He can't exactly leave, but sticking around wouldn't be the best thing either. Both options are fraught with problems. If the question of Putin's successor had been settled, the president could ride off into the sunset. But it hasn't, and it won't be until the last minute. Haven't we been through this all before back in 1998-99, when President Boris Yeltsin came to the end of his second term?

Amid all the talk about Russia's imminent political crisis we've lost track of the fact that there will be a chance of a change of leadership in other countries as well. Most importantly, U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office around the same time as Putin.

The changing of the guard in 2008 should be causing as many headaches for the Bush administration as for the Kremlin. Bush's popularity has plummeted, and following the disaster in New Orleans, the U.S. public seems to have awakened from the almost coma-like state it plunged into after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The Democrats had no chance of winning the presidency in 2004. They adopted a moderate stance and played to the center, but these stances no longer have much appeal. The Republicans installed a radically conservative administration in the White House. After eight years of Bush, a change of leadership would matter only if it produced no less radical change in the opposite direction. Many in Washington understand this instinctively, and this is why the Democrats may well come out swinging in the next campaign.

When you get right down to it, the Bush administration hasn't achieved a single one of its goals. It started a war in Iraq that it can't win. It strained relations with Western Europe and failed to secure either a decisive victory or reconciliation. The United States is more isolated than ever before. There have been no notable successes on the economic front. No doubt the Bush team is convinced that eight years just won't be enough to get the job done. They need four more years on top of that.

This is not simply a case of a political party fighting to hold on to power. The Bush administration is in the position of a locomotive starting to spin its wheels on a steep grade: It has to keep moving forward or risk rolling back downhill.

The search for a successor has surely gripped Washington no less than Moscow. For this reason, the United States is unlikely to spend much time worrying about Russia in the next few years. Germany won't have much time to dwell on Russia either. The political crisis that erupted after the national election this fall will force leaders in Berlin to focus on domestic issues for some time to come. No matter how the coalition shakes out, stability will not be its greatest asset. The European Union is paralyzed by the failure of its draft constitution, stalled negotiations with Turkey and the imminent admission of Romania and Bulgaria. Once these two countries join, all the problems associated with the last round of EU expansion will seem like child's play.

On top of all that, the world economy is poised for a depression. Sooner or later, sky-high oil prices will halt growth or set off a powerful wave of inflation, or probably both.

Strange as it sounds, all these problems may make life a little easier for the Kremlin because no one is going to meddle seriously in our domestic affairs. This means that for the next two to three years, our leaders' hands are untied. They can do whatever they like without looking over their shoulder, from extending Putin's tenure to handpicking a suitable successor. The sad thing is that the Putin administration won't be able to make use of this wondrous freedom. It has long consisted of warring factions. Whatever decision the Kremlin finally makes, it will come too late. The leadership won't be able to form a united front and implement the decision effectively.

Back in 1999, Yeltsin's administration made its final decision just eight months before his second term expired, and everything worked out fine. Putin's team will probably wait to the last minute too. But this time things won't work out fine because the president's men will run short of time or ability.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.