A few weeks ago, the good old science of Kremlinology got a delightful gift. At a meeting with members of the Valdai Club, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told the audience that in 2012, he and President Dmitri Medvedev will sit together and decide which of the two will run for presidency. The interpretation of Putin’s words by Western pundits and the media was swift and unambiguous, if somewhat expandable. They concluded that Putin is going to return to his old Kremlin office and possibly stay there until 2024.
Before trying to infer what Putin actually meant to say, it’s worth pointing out that forecasting his future has always been a dubious job. For example, a prominent Russia expert predicted, in January 2005, that “Putin will be out of office in the near future.” Yet in the fall of 2007, the same expert opined that Putin will remain in power indefinitely by "possibly following declaration of a national military emergency." Needless to say, neither forecast has come even close to getting materialized.
It turns out that the much better predictor of what Putin will or will not do has been his own words. Whatever one might think about the Russian strongman, lying for the sake of political expediency is not in his character (a feature pointed to by many world leaders, including President George W. Bush). During his presidency, Putin has always maintained that he was not going to change the Constitution in order to run for a third term. At the same time, he repeatedly indicated his desire to endorse, sometime in 2007, a “successor.” This is exactly what happened in reality: in December 2007, Putin threw his weight behind Dmitri Medvedev who was nominated shortly before that by United Russia and other political parties.
In light of these “historic precedents”, it would appear sensible to interpret Putin’s Valdai statement literally: that he hasn’t made up his plans for 2012, much less beyond that, and the decision on which of the two, Putin or Medvedev, will run for Russia’s top office will be made no earlier than 2012 — based on their shared analysis of political and economic situation in the country. (Putin specifically mentioned that the opinion of the United Russia party will be taken into consideration too. This is important: United Russia is the party that will officially nominate the candidate, be it Putin or Medvedev, and then use its formidable electoral campaign machine to ensure that the candidate wins a landslide victory).
One would have to admit that the West’s obsession with Putin’s persona (like ruminating over his K.G.B. background or deciphering the meaning of his bare-chest vacation pictures) sometimes borders on the irrational. Even though, it’s still hard to comprehend why so much anxiety is being caused by the prospect of Putin returning to the Kremlin again. No one in the West, to be sure, lost a good night’s sleep over the fact that, for example, in neighboring Finland, Urho Kekkonen had been the country’s Prime Minister and President for a whopping 23 years, practically in a row.
It appears that in the minds of many Western observers, Russia’s transition from a failing state in the 90s to a world power with a rapidly growing economy and assertive foreign policy is inseparable from Putin’s self-confident and often aggressive style of governing. That fuels a fear that for as long as Putin remains the country’s ruler, Russia will always be a difficult partner for the West.
At the core of this logic lies a belief that Putin can shape Russia’s future by whim and push the country, single-handedly, in whatever direction he may choose. This logic is false. Putin has been successful as president — and is still tremendously popular. Why? Because back in 2000, he was able to understand, first and foremost, prevailing public sentiments, demands, and expectations. He was also able to recognize what kind of leadership Russia needed, given its political and socio-economic situation at the time, and then provided exactly this kind of leadership. Saying it differently, it wasn’t Putin who chose which country Russia was to become; it was Russia that accepted the most fitting man to lead it in difficult times.
Putin’s major objective as president has been preventing Russia’s economic and political collapse (which seemed almost inevitable at the end of the 90s, due to the disastrous policies of his predecessor). By the middle of his second presidential term, it became apparent that this goal was achieved. However, it also became clear that the stabilization came at a price of excessive centralization of power within the executive branch of government. Equally troubling, the Russian economy has developed a perilous addiction to the export of commodities to underwrite its fast growth. A sense that Russia needed an adjustment was up in the air.
The intensity with which President Medvedev has spoken recently about “modernization” created the impression that he was the first among the country’s leadership to recognize that Russia needed serious structural economic reforms. This isn’t true: in his address to the Federal Assembly in May 2006, then President Putin spoke at length about restructuring the Russian economy by instilling an “innovation quality” in it. Ever sensitive to blowing political winds, Speaker of the Duma, Boris Gryzlov, titled his speech to the 6th Congress of United Russia (November 2005) as “From Stability to Development.”
It appears that a combination of two factors – Putin’s strong intention to step down from the office and his understanding of the need for reforms – led Putin to conclude that Medvedev will be the best fit for the presidency for the next four years. It’s hardly by accident that Putin chose Medvedev with his business experience over the other potential “successor”, Sergei Ivanov, who had a background very similar to Putin’s.
It’s now common to hear, both inside and outside of Russia, that for the first 18 months of his presidency, Medvedev has done “nothing.” It’s worth remembering however that three months into Medvedev’s presidency, Russia had to fight a war with Georgia. A severe economic crisis followed shortly after, and nothing in Medvedev’s previous years in government had prepared him for dealing with either calamity. Not surprisingly, the modernization agenda had to be put on hold.
However, as the first, if only tentative, signs emerged that the Russian economy was coming out of the woods, Medvedev launched an aggressive PR campaign – by publishing an article “Russia, forward!” He next gave a number of public speeches — to promote his plans of liberal economic reforms. Largely missed by Western observers was the fact that in contrast to Putin, Medvedev has linked the modernization of Russian economy with the need for concomitant political reforms, however timid and “evolutionary.”
Ever attentive to signs of the “split” between Putin and Medvedev, The Wall Street Journal’s Marc Champion interpreted Medvedev’s “Russia, forward!” article as an indication that Medvedev was “deeply critical of the system Mr. Putin has created.” It’s difficult to agree with such a conclusion. As a loyal member of Putin’s team and a top-level Kremlin insider, Medvedev has been intimately involved in the creation of this “system.” (This is as if the former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, decided to criticize the Bush administration’s foreign policy after having a hand in it herself). Besides, many problems that Medvedev highlighted in his liberal manifesto, such as a natural resources-dependent economy and chronic corruption, were brought into the “system” years before Medvedev (and Putin, for that matter) was even born.
Medvedev obviously is fully aware that he’s up against formidable obstacles. And so far, his approach to promoting himself has been anything but traditional for Russia’s arcane system of political campaigning (or, rather, lack thereof). He described his “Russia, forward!” article as a basis for his upcoming address to the Federal Assembly and then invited the general public to provide feedback to his blog. As the Kommersant newspaper reported on October 14, about 20,000 responses had been posted by that time “by Russian citizens (including anarchists, futurists, economists and political scientists).”
Medvedev also reached out to the business community, not a common practice, to say the least, during Putin’s presidency. He met with members of the Russian Union of Industries and Entrepreneurs (RUIE) and invited them to participate in brainstorming for the economic section of the Federal Assembly address. The RUIE head, TNK-BP’s Mikhail Friedman, was asked by Medvedev to prepare a report analyzing the economic situation in the country.
Domestic critics predictably accused Medvedev in being short “on specifics.” This is true (but one has first to listen to the address itself). However, being “specific” is hardly Medvedev’s main priority. His goal seems to be to create interest to and, perhaps, even excitement about his ambitious goals, a sentiment he can capitalize upon when (if) running for re-election in 2012. Given the legendary apathy of the Russian electorate, this isn’t easy. But it’s doable. After all, Medvedev doesn’t have to prove that he’s “different” from Putin, much less that he’s “better.” All he has to do is to show the Russian voters that he’s fit to run the country for the next six years.
It therefore appears plausible that should Russia’s conditions remain conducive to reforms in 2012, it is Medvedev, not Putin, who’ll run for presidency. However, should the situation in the country deteriorate – as a result of the second wave of the economic crisis, growing violence in the North Caucasus or another military conflict – to the extent that “stability”, not “modernization”, will be again the Kremlin’s major objective, then it’s Putin who’ll become president.
Perhaps, this is what Vladimir Vladimirovich had in mind when he promised to sit down and talk with Dmitri Anatolievich in 2012.