On Saturday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev awkwardly strode to the microphone at the United Russia convention and, with the air of a student hall monitor announcing the return of the principal, told the ruling party that Vladimir Putin will be running for president in the next election. Mr. Medvedev will be allowed to take on Mr. Putin’s vacated position as prime minister, in what both men claimed was a deal made years ago. All the speculation inside and outside Russia about a “duopoly” of power or a “ruling tandem” instantly evaporated with this stark demonstration of Mr. Putin’s unfettered supremacy.
With Mr. Putin’s election now basically guaranteed, it’s always possible he might surprise us. Much more likely, though, there’ll be no fundamental change; most probably, despite some temporary cosmetic reforms, we’ll see an accentuation and acceleration of certain negative trends in terms of democratic and Western interests.
Mr. Medvedev has undoubtedly been useful for Mr. Putin, and this is one of the reasons he’ll apparently be retained in a different job. But there should be no illusion about the limited role that had been assigned to Mr. Medvedev, his future mission, or the likely trends and problems in Russia.
Mr. Medvedev, as President, had to fulfill the dual requirement of abject loyalty to Mr. Putin, even while nominally occupying the constitutionally most powerful position in Russia, and marketing a (faux) democratic, reformist narrative abroad. But his soaring rhetoric could not mask his managerial incompetence and, ultimately, his political impotence.
Even if much of what Mr. Medvedev did and said was mere posturing, in his limited areas of autonomy, he may have been suspected of some genuine democratic instincts and perhaps even a quest for something resembling a power base. In his “power vertical” system, Mr. Putin could not tolerate this, for he evidently insists both on the reality and the perception of absolute control.
Yet, as Russia confronts structural domestic problems and volatile international politics and economics, Mr. Putin’s goal of a comfortable autocracy is likely to come under increasing stress. There are at least four areas where we’re likely to witness major problems.
First, politically, Mr. Putin has consistently worked to concentrate power and centralize politics. This includes a system of rewards that creates loyalty and dependence in the upper echelons but, as with the other dimensions of centralized politics, is not only an enormous impediment to creating a modern and competitive state, it’s also more difficult to sustain in the new information age.
Second, Mr. Putin recycled some of Mr. Medvedev’s economic rhetoric on Saturday, contending that Russia desperately needs to move away from dependence on raw materials and diversify. But his instinct for utter political control seems to create an irreconcilable contradiction with the diversity and natural decentralization of a successful market economy.
Without an independent and competent judiciary, a system of business law that functions well and protects domestic and international investors, and genuine opportunities for innovative entrepreneurs rather than just rhetoric about technological innovation, Russia is likely to remain a giant resource supplier but a one-dimensional laggard among advanced economies.
Third, militarily, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have begun a massive military buildup to upgrade Russia’s armed forces that will cost $650-billion (U.S.) over the next 10 years. With looming budgetary deficits, with its pension fund suffering from a one-trillion-ruble shortfall, the depletion of much of its “rainy day fund” as energy prices declined, and a flat oil output, Russia can ill afford such ambitious spending. Little wonder that, on Sunday, reformist Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin announced he would not serve under Mr. Medvedev as prime minister, as the former not only opposed huge military spending increases but was skeptical of the latter’s commitment to reform.
Fourth, Mr. Putin’s international ambitions (which are increasingly at variance with Russia’s economic capacity, and made worse by a catastrophic demographic decline) and macho posturing not only put into doubt the reset button with the U.S. but are a recipe for mischief and miscalculation. Granted, this is not the rebirth of a Soviet threat but one of a leadership ill able to adapt to new international realities, truly recognize the depth of domestic structural problems and accept the need for painful domestic changes and long-term solutions.
Such a regime is more likely to try to “levitate” the economy rather than transform it, seek quick energy solutions in the Arctic that could lead not only to ecological disasters but also to possible political and even military confrontations, and insert itself into volatile international disputes if it believes its international profile will be raised and the “grandeur” of its leader enhanced, even at long-term cost.
Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto. His latest book is NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century.
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