In case you haven’t heard, Vladimir Putin is back. If, that is, he ever really left.
Putin is poised to be elected to a third term as Russia’s president, his candidacy having been proposed by none other than current President Dmitry Medvedev at the congress of the ruling United Russia party last Saturday. He faces no serious opposition, and three years after leaving the presidency, Putin remains Russia’s most popular and trusted politician.
So, the presidential succession is virtually a fact. And while the punditry have already turned their attentions elsewhere, we have the luxury of stepping back to address the larger question: What does the succession reveal about the Russian political system that has developed over the so-called “Putin decade”?
One view is that it reveals nothing that wasn’t known already. Putin never meant to leave power. He left the presidency in 2008 with every intention of returning four years later, thereby observing constitutional niceties while in the interim continuing to micromanage politics as prime minister.
Evidence for this proposition exists, but its central contention — that Putin always intended to return to the presidency — is wrong. If Putin had wanted a third term, why bother stepping down even temporarily? In 2007, Putin easily could have had the Russian constitution amended to permit him to stay on as president like many of his supporters wished.
The standard counterargument — that such a maneuver would have been universally criticized in the West — is true but irrelevant. Western opinion has never been a serious restraining factor on Russia’s leaders in domestic politics.
In 2008, Putin had no plans of returning to the presidency in four years time. By his own admission, he had grown tired of foreign policy — the president’s portfolio — and wanted to devote more attention to domestic affairs. And so Putin engineered a gradual transition to a younger protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, hoping thereby to institutionalize the managed succession procedure and depersonalize presidential power.
Under the tandem arrangement, Putin would remain in a supervisory capacity as prime minister, allowing Medvedev to become Russia’s international face to launch his own policy initiatives. Putin’s presence would capitalize on his immense informal power to discourage attempts by various Kremlin clans to attack the new president and his team. With time, Medvedev would grow in confidence and savvy, recalcitrant elites would submit to his authority and it would become possible for Medvedev to initiate a new round of economic and legal reforms.
Putin’s return makes it definitively clear that this plan has not worked. The tandem arrangement has failed, and with it the possibility of easily depersonalizing political power. Why?
The first blow to the tandem was the global economic crisis, which hit Russia hard and caught both Putin and Medvedev by surprise. The Kremlin party immediately went into crisis mode, setting back its work on implementing strategic long-term policies by a year. The rapid deterioration of the socioeconomic situation demonstrated that reforms were more urgent than previously thought, but the political will needed to implement them dissipated as ministries scrambled to grab the resources necessary for survival.
The second blow, unexpectedly fierce bureaucratic resistance to Medvedev’s reforms, flowed naturally from the first. Ideas like the anti-corruption program and judicial reform would never have found favor within the bureaucracy, but facing a budget deficit, the Kremlin party could hardly afford to shower the relevant agencies with enough cash to induce them to come around.
Third, the tensions between Putin’s and Medvedev’s respective teams (not the two men themselves) proved insoluble. Much of Medvedev’s presidency has been spent intervening in turf battles between his more zealous supporters and agencies staffed by Putin loyalists. Meanwhile, most officials were too frightened to show favor to either camp to implement policy at all.
Finally, Medvedev himself proved to be a poor fit for the presidency. The president’s visible eagerness during his first year in office gave way to equally visible frustration once the obstacles to his program became apparent. Unlike Putin, Medvedev never developed a knack for public politics, and as an administrator, his performance has been lackluster.
In the face of these obstacles, the tandem arrangement simply failed, and its failure paved the way for Putin’s return to the presidency. Although Putin’s speech at the United Russia congress was marked by the self-assurance and attention to detail that have become his hallmarks, one cannot but imagine that he fully understands what his return to the Kremlin party means. Under Medvedev the Russian elite has proven to be as venal and shortsighted as ever, while the urgency of reforms has only increased. Over the past decade, political power has become so deeply personalized that — like it or not — Vladimir Putin is the only man for the job. And that is precisely the problem.
Brendan McElroy is a senior in the College.