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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Even Putin's Popularity Can Evaporate

Opinions about President Vladimir Putin run the gamut. In the West, he is regarded as an authoritarian, an autocrat, even as a dictator. In Russia, a huge majority regards him as the most democratic of leaders on the grounds that he has done more than his predecessors to improve the lot of ordinary people. But there is one point on which both camps agree: Putin intends to remain in power indefinitely.

That conclusion stems from Putin's recent statement that he might become prime minister after relinquishing the presidency in May. Regardless of what Putin does, his personal influence and the strategic direction in which he has taken the country will remain dominant for years to come.

Given this reality, what matters now is how this "Putin system" will work, which will depend on institutional frameworks and practices. At stake, both for Russia and the wider world, are stability and legitimacy, hence the prospects for steady political and economic modernization.

Legitimacy and stability are inseparable in practice because maintaining stability in the absence of legitimacy would ultimately require Tiananmen-style repression. But this can be ruled out in today's Russia because the instruments to implement it -- notably an army that would obey orders to fire on people -- are lacking.

Many opinion polls show that the presidency is the only institution that Russians accept as legitimate -- in contrast to the legislature and judiciary, which are perceived as corrupt and ineffective. This is not surprising, given the country's history and culture. More important is that an almost equally large majority values the power to hire and fire their tsar in free elections held at regular intervals in line with the Constitution.

In the country's current political cycle, which will culminate in the presidential election of March 2008, there will be no difficulty in meeting the main conditions of legitimacy: respecting the Constitution's rules about regular free elections to the presidency. Given Putin's popularity, these rules present no threat to the ruling group's power. The voters will enthusiastically elect anyone who has Putin's blessing.

But looking forward to the next political cycle, in 2012, or the one after that, in 2016, there is no guarantee that today's conditions will still apply. Invincible popularity can evaporate. Even in the rosiest economic scenario, expectations about rising living standards will outstrip reality, causing disenchantment.

If, in the meantime, the political system has not acquired more institutional cushioning and the presidency's unique legitimacy remains based merely on the public's approval of an incumbent surrounded by shady and bickering Kremlin factions, there would be a high risk of chronic destabilization. In these circumstances, an isolated and increasingly unpopular regime might decide to cancel or rig the presidential election when it fell due.

This is what happened in Ukraine in November 2004, with revolutionary consequences. It would be rash to assume that the outcome in Russia would be as benign as Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

Integrating the presidency into broader political structures and procedures -- especially into party politics -- would reduce this risk. A political party infused with a normal instinct for self-preservation would produce a fresh face to run in a proper presidential election, replacing an unpopular incumbent and his cronies.

As it happens, Putin is now entrenching the already dominant United Russia party by his decision to head the party's candidate list in December's State Duma elections. Could Russia emulate Japan's postwar model, in which a single dominant party revives and modernizes the country?

Like all historical analogies, this one may prove flawed, but it is not absurd. Japan's de facto one-party state is more democratic than authoritarian, owing not only to its law-based framework, but also to its culture of accountability. The Liberal Democratic Party elite always reacts to the popular mood and concerns -- often stealing its opponents' ideas.

While inferior to the open alternation of power between two or more political parties, the evolution of United Russia into something resembling the LDP would still leave Russia in a much better shape than a personal regime confined to the Kremlin. Despite the country's history after 1917, one dominant political party is preferable to none at all.

Putin's recent public statements point to such a vision: a dominant center-right ruling party, with a non-Communist, social democratic alternative waiting in the wings to maintain stable government should the main party falter. As so often in politics, much will depend on how far Putin matches deeds to words after leaving the presidency.

Should he choose to exercise his vast residual influence through United Russia with its inevitable majority in the newly elected parliament, we will know that he means what he says. If, by contrast, he leaves the presidency, gets himself appointed prime minister and overhauls the Constitution to shift powers to give himself new powers, we will know that he is going for a personal regime after all.

Emasculating the elected presidency, which is Russia's sole source of political legitimacy, would pave the way to chaos. The habit of changing the rules to keep power would persist after the strongman eventually leaves the scene, but the superficial stability of his rule would not.

Christopher Granville, a former British diplomat in Moscow, is managing director of Trustedsources, an independent research service on emerging markets. This comment appears © Project Syndicate.