As if to provide a useful metaphor for Russian politics, Vladimir Putin recently emerged from the Black Sea, in a wetsuit, carrying two Ancient Greek vases. “The boys and I found them,” the vacationing Prime Minister said of these treasures from the birthplace of democracy.
On Thursday, his spokesman admitted what everyone already knew: “Look, Putin did not find an amphora that had been lying on the bottom for many thousands of years. … They either left them there, or they put them there. … This is completely normal.”
Indeed, it is completely normal in Russia nowadays. A few days earlier, Mr. Putin made that abundantly clear with a much-heralded speech he delivered at Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Palace.
You might have assumed, given the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, that Mr. Putin would use the occasion to exemplify Russia as a model of post-authoritarian democratic success. After all, the month of his speech marked the 20th anniversary of the vote by the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies to disband the Soviet Union. Instead, Mr. Putin decided to tell the world that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is a Greek vase.
Mr. Medvedev, who took office in 2008 after Mr. Putin finished his legal maximum of two consecutive terms, told the crowd he would be stepping down as president next year so Mr. Putin could run for the position – and therefore win a third and probably a fourth term. Not only that, but the reshuffle had been part of a carefully calculated plot, a move to create the illusion of democratic competition in a country devoid of it. Mr. Medvedev had been planted at the bottom of the sea.
“I want to say directly: An agreement over what to do in the future was reached between us several years ago,” Mr. Putin boasted to the crowd. Mr. Medvedev, who had spent much of his term appearing to distance himself from the former KGB colonel and seemingly preparing himself to run against him as a more liberal alternative, acknowledged that he’d been an eager participant. “We actually discussed this variant of events while we were first forming our comradely alliance.”
So Mr. Putin’s speech did end up providing an important lesson for the revolutionaries of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. It showed what can happen when the former elites of a dictatorship become the self-appointed saviours of a country from the errors of its earlier democratic reformers.
Mr. Putin can get away with this presidential bait-and-switch – he calls it “managed democracy” – because he can claim that the alternative is the chaos of the unregulated, laissez-faire 1990s, just as Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi were able to claim that the only alternative was Islamic extremism. And indeed, if their democratic successors don’t build strong institutions, a thriving market economy and a pathway to the middle class, they could find themselves in this position within the decade.
But this is far from an inevitable fate – or an essential part of the Russian or Slavic character, as mythology holds. Democratic revolutionaries need only look next door to Estonia, which joined the euro zone this year and has led the efforts to support Greece’s recovery, or to fellow European Union member Poland, the only European country to have dodged the financial crisis, or to the stable democracies of the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
Mr. Putin, already speaking in presidential mode this week, has called for the creation of a Eurasian Union, joining Belarus, Kazakhstan and other neighbours in an autocratic bloc as a rival to the EU. It has led some to compare it, rather inaccurately, to the Soviet Union (which Mr. Putin often lionizes these days).
But it means Mr. Putin is now courting Ukraine, whose president, Viktor Yanukovych, is teetering between West and East. Mr. Yanukovych has made important moves toward joining the EU and putting aside old barriers, but he stands on the verge of imprisoning former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a transparently political trial. His decision in that trial could tip the balance of the entire region.
This is not a return to Soviet times. Mr. Putin’s Potemkin-village politics have spurred several of his top ministers to flee his party. There’s a burgeoning new middle class, with no ties to the old elite, that has no interest in the easy security provided by Mr. Putin.
Democratic revolutions do, indeed, work. But Russia’s did not take place in 1991; it lies ahead.