Putin in 2012: Expert Analysis

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to “accept” current Russian president Dmitri Medvedev’s invitation to run for president again in 2012 is… interesting. Here are a number of expert opinions (courtesy of my colleagues in the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia ) in response to Vladimir Putin’s decision to annoint himself run for president of Russia in 2012 .

Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Analyst, Center for Naval Analyses:

There has already been some loose talk about the potential negative impact of Putin’s return on U.S.-Russian relations. On the contrary, I think this move in and of itself will have very little impact on bilateral relations or on overall Russian foreign policy, for that matter. Russia was not ruled by Medvedev over the last 3.5 years, and it will not be ruled exclusively by Putin over the next six. The Russian leadership is in some sense a collectivity, with Putin acting (in the words of Olga Kryshtanovskaia) as primus inter pares among a group of 4-6 top leaders who together make the decisions. In this environment, the current foreign policy course has to have been supported by the leadership, and by Putin in particular. There’s no reason to think he will want to change it as president. Russia will continue to seek to cooperate with the United States on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation activities and will provide an increasingly important transit route to Afghanistan. At the same time, Russian leaders will continue their sporadic efforts to find a way to integrate their country into Western security institutions, though most likely with no more success than they’ve achieved to date.

To be sure, the atmospherics may be somewhat different. Several Russians I’ve spoken to about Putin’s decision argue that the main difference between him and Medvedev is in their style, rather than their substance. I have no doubt that Putin’s rhetoric will at times cause a great deal of consternation in the West and in the United States in particular. In these circumstances, it will be especially important to focus on Russian actions, rather than their rhetoric, in order to avoid an over-reaction that would derail aspects of the relationship that provide concrete and significant benefits to the United States.

Yulia Nikitina, Moscow State University of International Relations

There are two possible explanations of this decision. The first one is about legitimacy. Putin has a greater national legitimacy – he really is a national leader. And Medvedev has a greater international legitimacy as he is perceived abroad as a more liberal ruler. So the choice between two candidates was actually the choice between internal and external legitimacy because on the whole Putin and Medvedev have no major controversies over Russia’s future. As Russia is a country of signals, Putin’s return to the Kremlin is a signal that “Arab spring” scenario for Russia will not work. In its turn, it means that Russian authorities are really afraid of the possible social unrest and that civil society is really there.

The second and more simple explanation is that from the very beginning Putin was going to return to the Kremlin for the next two terms and this view is shared by most Russian experts. And life is always simpler than we think.

Ivan Kurilla, Volgograd State University

The situation now is less defined than it was in 2007/08 or 2003/04. Today NYT published pretty fatalistic commentary on inevitability of Putin’s comeback. While that scenario is very probable, I believe that there is still room and time to avert it (for dissatisfied part of the elite, as well as for activist organization which, of course, could not take place – but look at the economic crisis). This is a wishful thinking, but if the wish is strong… We’ll see something on the elite side even before Duma elections.

Andrey Makarychev, Free University of Berlin

I fully agree with those experts arguing that Russian (post-)political process is explicitly under-institutionalized. Yet the forthcoming Medvedev – Putin job swap adds to this a sense of a logical flaw: Medvedev who was proposed to head the “United Russia” party ticket in December parliamentary election will in fact have to step down afterwards, instead of running for presidency in March, which would be more logical for a leader of winning party (at least, in canons of Western democracy). This controversy contains one more logical trap: in fact, the President – Prime Minister collusion can (and, formally speaking, should) be interpreted as the recognition of the failure of Medvedev’s presidency (should this not be the case in a well functioning democracy, why a successful president should not run for his second term?).

Another important issue that was unveiled by the Putin–Medvedev deal is – again, unnatural for democracies – the almost complete lack of new political leaders that would make careers within the existing political institutions. Since Putin came to power in 2000, new faces were unwelcome in Russian politics. The recent “operation” of substitution of Valentina Matvienko by Grigory Poltavchenko as the mayor of St.Petersburg is quite revealing in this regard. Institutions are dysfunctional because of their inability to renew political elites

As far as those of Western experts (Alexander Rahr and Dmitry Simes, among others) who rushed in their interviews to Russian TV to celebrate the prospects of “certainty” and “predictability”, I would like to remind that it was Vladimir Putin who challenged the legitimacy of anti-Gaddafi military operation, questioned the expediency of innovative visa facilitation arrangements for Kaliningrad, and ultimately was denied the honor of receiving the prestigious Quardiga Prize in Berlin. The EU nowadays has a good chance to politically confirm its commitment to a “normative power” status, despite luring “business-as-usual” pragmatism so cherished by Putin himself.

Mark Kramer, Harvard University

Earlier this year, numerous commentators in Russia and the United States were expressing confidence that Dmitry Medvedev would stay on as Russian president. My own view, as I wrote at the time, was that this was nothing more than wishful thinking. After the Russian parliament adopted constitutional amendments in 2008 that extended the presidential term to 6 years, I felt it was clear that Vladimir Putin was going to return as president in 2012. If he had waited until 2018, a lot of uncertainties would have arisen, not least that he would be in his mid-60s by then (he was born in October 1952).

The announcements by Putin and Medvedev on Saturday at the Edinaya Rossiya congress resolved the matter. Both leaders said they had agreed long ago (presumably in 2008) that Putin would return as president in 2012. If what they say is true, it reflects a striking degree of hubris. Even as Putin and Medvedev allowed journalists, intellectuals, public officials, ordinary citizens, and foreign observers to engage in endless speculation over the past few years, the two leaders already had things planned. The acolytes of Medvedev who were openly urging him to run for president in 2012—and who now presumably will be excluded from any role under Putin—must feel that their boss betrayed them and left them hanging out to dry.

Most likely, after Putin is elected president again—his election is a foregone conclusion—he will seek to implement some economic reforms (in a throwback to the important economic reforms he adopted in 2000-2002) and will try to reduce the corruption that he himself has fostered. But there is no reason to believe that he will return to a more democratic political system. Anyone who is expecting him suddenly to become a democratizer is going to be disappointed. Nothing that Putin has done over the past twelve years suggests that he has any desire to convert Russia into a genuine democracy with meaningful political competition, free and fair elections, respect for civil liberties, and observance of the rule of law. The extraordinarily opaque manner in which Putin made his decision to return as president—a decision he said he and Medvedev had agreed on “several years ago”—is indicative of his profound aversion to democratic politics and of the dubious nature of political institutions in Russia. Political power in Russia is now more concentrated in the hands of one man than it has been at any time since Stalin’s death. Russia is still much freer than it was in Soviet times, but the concentration of political power in a single leader and the relative lack of public accountability are very troubling for Russia’s future

Even if Putin were not so uncomfortable with the vicissitudes of democratic politics, the massive redistribution of property during his reign militates against any liberalization. Putin and his cronies, who have been greatly enriched under his rule, have no incentive to accept any measures that would lead to public scrutiny of their wealth. The redistribution of property has created both winners and losers, and the winners (many from the former KGB) have a stake in doing everything they can to consolidate and protect their gains. They also want to prevent the losers from ever being able to challenge them.

Russia will thus remain what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have described as a “competitive authoritarian” regime—a regime in which “formal democratic institutions” and rules exist, but “incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent . . . that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.” Although the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” may not be fully satisfactory, it does have considerable use in thinking about Russia over the next decade. The concept implies that if the economic situation under Putin goes badly awry over the next six years (a realistic enough prospect, given the volatility of the global economy), Russians might seek to hold him accountable, using what remains of the national electoral channels. The concept also implies that Putin and his cronies will make a staunch effort to hold onto power even if their policies prove deeply unpopular. They will resort to any means to protect their wealth. In these respects, Russia will be something like Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Belarus under Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and Rwanda under Paul Kagame. It will not be like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe or Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov or Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi, but it will be perilously close to Kazakhstan under Nursultan Nazarbaev.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.