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Russia, Putin And Putinism

Updated: October 29, 2011 11:45 am

Soon after Russia had a new President on May 7, 2008, in the then 42-year-old Dmitri Medvedev, the third man to move into the Kremlin since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, I was asked in a seminar (since I had visited Russia quite a few time) whether Moscow would be free from “Putinism,” the political and ideological system that Vladimir Putin as the President for eight years perfected. My instant answer was “Yes”.

I feel vindicated now that Putin, who was Prime Minister under Medvedev, has decided to return to Kermlin in May 2012—which Russian voters are widely expected to rubber-stamp in March 2012 . Medvedev is most likely to become the Prime Minister. In fact, Putin and Medvedev’s job swap announced on September 24 at the ruling United Russia Party Congress is not surprising.

What is Putinism? Soon after coming to power in 2000, Putin implemented a system known alternately as “managed democracy” or “sovereign democracy”. Its essential features are a strong and unaccountable executive, a subservient legislature and judiciary, stage-managed elections with predictable results, and a so-called “power vertical” in which regional and local elites are subordinate to the Kremlin.

Civil society was weakened, public liberties restricted, and the media tightly controlled. Putin also tightened Russia’s macroeconomic policy and stabilised the country’s once-turbulent finances. In foreign affairs, Putin favoured a muscular global stance in which Russia was not afraid to use its energy-wealth (oil wealth) to get its way in the international arena—particularly with the former Soviet Republics. During Putin’s tenure, Russia came back as a major world presence. This success was literally fuelled by the unprecedented rise in oil and natural gas prices.

Putin and his inner circle justified that such a system was necessary to preserve Russia’s sovereignty against the forces of globalisation and the spread of Western-style liberalism, which they believed led to chaos. Putin had a strong inner circle, because he wanted his political and ideological legacy to survive. This meant not only choosing the correct Presidential successor. It also meant making sure the current elite—Putin’s so-called “St Petersburg team”—remained in positions. Political authority in Russia, it may be noted, has been concentrating in recent years around Putin’s cronies from his days as an officer in the KGB.

Medvedev belongs to this inner team of Putin. The former was the latter’s assistant at city hall in St. Petersburg in the 1990s (in 1991-1996 Medvedev worked as a legal expert for the International Relations Committee of the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s Office headed by Putin). It was Putin who had ensured that Medvedev succeded him since at that time, no Russian President, elected for a period of four years, could have remained in office after two consucative terms. Now the Constitution has been amended, making the presidential term for six years.

That means that if Putin wants, he would remain President for the next 12 years, starting in May 2012. In fact, he will have been President for a total of over 20 years in May 2024, given that he already served as Russia’s President from December 1999 to May 2008. This means that he will have stayed longer in power than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who ruled for 18 years. When Putin’s second six-year presidential term ends in May 2024, Putin will be 71 years old—older than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin when the latter resigned, but younger than either Brezhnev or Joseph Stalin when their rule ended. If the Russian Constitution’s language on Presidency, which bars Presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms, remains the same, then Putin can again return to the Kremlin at the age of 77, provided that he wins the 2030 elections. This should not be surprising for the Indians, since our present Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s official age is 79 years (in reality he could be older) and the person who continues to work for taking his job—BJP leader LK Advani—is only 84-year young!

Coming back to Putinism, even though under the Russian Constitution the President is the most powerful political executive, Medvedev has never given that impression. The real power always remained with Putin, thanks to his popularity and a parliament that owed allegiance to him, not Medvedev. Even otherwise, the personal relations between the two remained cordial throughout.

So, what are the incentives for a President Medvedev to play along with Putin’s plan? For one, the cycle Putin may be launching now will end in 12 years, when a 71-year-old Putin could again pass the baton to Medvedev, who would then ( 2024) be a sprightly 58.

What are the implications of Putin returning to the Kremlin? Noted Russisan experts do have a point when they say that since Putin always believes in “stability”, he should not be expected to bring about more political and economic reforms. And that means that Putin’s Russia will continue to suffer a number of serious, chronic problems, some of which could acquire an acute form if a global economic crisis hits. These include: a backward economy (including its heavy dependence on oil that accounts for 50 per cent of Russia’s budgetary revenues and dominance of large, state-controlled companies); rising public expenditures (which have multiplied the budget 10-fold in 11 years to account for 20 per cent of GDP); social inequality (with a Gini Coefficient of 42.2); severe regional disparities (where the GDP of one region is 440 times smaller than that of another); and labour shortages (Russia is forecast to lose 10 million workers by 2025).

On the foreign policy-front, given Putin’s affinity for tongue-lashings of western powers in speeches to domestic audiences, his comeback may result in a toughening of Russian rhetoric vis-à-vis the West. Overall, however, no tectonic shifts in Russia’s foreign policy should be expected, since Putin has had a major say on most major issues during Medvedev’s Presidency. For India, this is not exactly bad news. Putin has been a great supporter of India; it was during his term that the two countries became strategic partners and it became mandatory for the heads of the government of the two countries to meet in summit meetings every year, venue alternating between Moscow and Delhi. In fact, Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Moscow by the end of this year.

In sum, Putinism, already healthy and hearty, will keep on kicking for years to come.

By Prakash Nanda

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