Last Friday, this author had the opportunity to dine in the company of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his senior staff, and the attendees of the annual Valdai Club meeting at Le Cheval Blanc, a gourmet restaurant in Moscow.
Responding to the Valdai Club report that found Russia’s “managed democracy” is running out of steam, Putin retorted that Russia’s current political system has not exhausted itself yet—as he is running for president. Asked who are the next generation of politicians, he named President Dmitry Medvedev, then stalled and said more names will become known in a few months.
“Not everyone should be allowed close to power. Leaders are a unique commodity… Everyone can try, but not everyone should get there,” Russia’s “national leader” explained.
This suggests that Putin is here to stay, as the Russian colloquialism goes, “seriously and for awhile,” i.e., at least as long as the amended Russian constitution allows him, until 2024. Beyond that, the “next-gen” Medvedev may mind the store for another 12 years, until 2036.
If the “tandem,” as they are known, succeeds to pull it off, this will make the “Putivedev” reign one of the longest in Russian history. To compare, the czar Nicholas I ruled for 30 years (1825–1855), and so did the communist dictator Joseph Stalin (1923–1953). Leonid Brezhnev, who is now proposed as a model for Putin, ruled “only” 18 years (1964–1982). All of them presided over periods of repression and stagnation and died in office.
Putin is not messing around and is there to stay.
A few of his statements at the three-plus-hour dinner suggest Russia’s possible direction during his third presidential term. First, Putin mentioned that, in the opinion of “some experts,” the multiparty political system “has outlived its usefulness.” One of these experts, sitting nearby, was nodding his head in approbation.
“What we need is more intra-party democracy,” said the Russian leader, referring to the United Russia party that he leads. Today, such democracy does not exist. For example, another expert present at the dinner—a future member of the Duma from United Russia—claimed there was no connection between the primaries he participated in and his ending up on the Duma candidate list. Russian members of parliament are elected through a complex procedure of national and regional lists, not in majority districts like representatives in the U.S. and U.K. Decision-making of this kind in Russia tends to be very informal, to put it mildly. There are many reports of people buying places on Duma lists, which can be attractive, as members of parliament have immunity from criminal prosecution. Yet, Putin is not naïve: Politics is a struggle for power. By further emasculating the acutely anemic party, he will sweep political struggle under United Russia’s rug.
Valdai Club experts presented Putin with a report of their own, listing possible future scenarios in Russia’s development:
- status quo and stagnation
- authoritarian modernization
- liberal-democratic reforms
- revolutionary-democratic reforms (I would add, either nationalistic or populist)
- repressive authoritarianism
Timothy Colton, a Harvard professor and Boris Yeltsin’s biographer, delivered the report. He expressed the opinion of many club members in saying that Russia’s power structures are still weak; its economy may be developing, primarily through natural resources exports, but the political system is stagnating. Not a lot of Russians we met put stock in the transparency and accuracy of the December 4 Duma election vote count. The 60 percent result for United Russia seemed preordained. Needless to say, Russian leadership greeted the Valdai report without enthusiasm.
Putin wants to have the best of both worlds. Under his plan, Russia would undergo modernization while simultaneously maintaining and expanding its gas and oil industry. The expansion would include, for example, the connection of the West Siberian gas transit system, which pumps resources to Western Europe, with the East Siberian network, which supplies East Asia. Putin did not address the economic feasibility of such a major project; it is not even clear if a feasibility study was conducted. And the implementation would cost tens of billions of dollars that are unlikely to appear out of thin air.
Among the politicians we met, Sergei Mironov, the current leader of “Just Russia,” was the only one who supported deep reforms. However, as Russia’s former No. 3 official who was an important part of the Putin administration for 10 years but gave up his position as the Chairman of the Council of the Federation, Mironov does not have a lot of credibility left.
Russia faces a number of serious challenges that its leadership seems to be unwilling or unable to address. How successful Putin is in forging his own way for the country remains to be seen. History—and the Russians—will be the only judges of the outcome.