The year is 2024. The world’s economic prospects have perked up a bit since the collapse of the euro. The Germans are happily spending deutchmarks again, the Greeks are back with the drachma. Almost all of the leaders in power a decade earlier have been swept away – Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg (remember him?). Even Silvio Berlusconi has reluctantly accepted retirement. Italy’s former premier now spends his days in his Sardinian villa with a group of showgirls.
Only one leader has defied the iron law that all politicians eventually leave office. His name? Vladimir Putin. Now 71, Putin has served two more terms as Russia’s president – bringing the tally of his stints in the Kremlin up to a remarkable four – the final two lasting a total of 12 years. He is fitter and more vigorous than ever: Russian first state TV channel has recently shown him wrestling heroically with a python after it “escaped” from a Moscow zoo.
In theory, this is the moment when Putin should finally step down after a quarter of century at the apex of Russian power. He has already outlasted Leonid Brezhnev (18 years) and is closing in fast on comrade Stalin (a whopping 31).
Ridiculous predictions? Well, no. Putin announced that he was standing for a third term as president in “elections” to be held next March. The man who has been keeping the Kremlin seat warm for him, Dmitry Medvedev, is to become Russia’s prime minister. It’s time to switch!
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and his sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev taught us a good lesson on truth and honesty, albeit in a manner that befits your typical silovki.
The two spent the last year playing charades, trying to inject an element of suspense and drama into the question on everyone’s lips, that of which tandem member might run for president. All speculation was cast aside when Putin revealed his dirty little secret during his speech at the United Russia convention: That he and Medvedev had secretly agreed on the “several years ago.” Medvedev said the pact was made before he became president in 2008. Even ministers and the two leaders’ top advisers were unaware of the deal.
“Every story should have its own intrigue,” Medvedev said with a grin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June in answer to the umpteenth question from a journalist about who would run for president next year. “Otherwise life would be boring, so let’s enjoy it a little longer.”
And enjoy they did.
What a ruse the two pulled on many world leaders, analysts and, yes, journalists who took close notice of every sign of Medvedev’s “liberalism” and what this might mean for the democratization and modernization of Russia. They must feel a bit foolish now, looking back at how seriously they treated Medvedev’s Four I’s, his police and judicial reforms, Skolkovo, and his battle against “legal nihilism” and bureaucrats who “terrorise” businesspeople.
“This was a slap in the face,” said Igor Yurgens, head of the Institute for Contemporary Development, a Kremlin-linked think tank that argued repeatedly that a second Medvedev presidential term would benefit Russia.
In addition, analysts tried to fish out any sign of a “schism” between the tandem over the past year, looking for indications that Medvedev might replace Putin as the national leader. Putin looks fatigued after running the country for a decade, the argument went. Maybe it was time to pass on the reins of power to his protegé, a younger and more liberal “modernizer.”
The first perceived split emerged in summer 2010 over the multibillion-dollar highway through the Khimki forest, which Putin supported and Medvedev suspended. Was this Medvedev’s first major independent decision? Was he trying to outdo Putin? After this, many started speculating that Medvedev might make a serious bid for the 2012 race.
That August 2010 highway suspension was followed by Medvedev’s decision to fire Mayor Yury Luzhkov a month later and his direct contradiction of Putin regarding the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in December. When Putin was asked about Khodorkovsky during his annual televised call-in show in early December, he answered, “A thief should sit in jail.” Two weeks later, Medvedev said: “Neither the president, nor any other official in state service, has any right to express a position about this matter … before the sentence is delivered.”
Then, in his March speech in Magnitogorsk, Medvedev criticized the ineffectiveness of large state-controlled corporations and promised to remove ministers serving on their boards of directors. This was largely viewed as a bold attack on “national champions” — the foundation of Putin’s state capitalism model — as well as on Putin’s closest allies, such as Igor Sechin, who would be stripped of high-profile and powerful board posts.
Then there was an apparent pact split on the NATO military action against Libya, followed by a June interview with the Financial Times in which Medvedev said he would like to run for president in 2012.
As it turns out, it was all a hoax, including the disagreements. The most distasteful aspect, however, was that Putin was not even bashful of publicly admitting during his convention speech that the secret deal was sealed years ago. On the contrary, it appeared that he was relishing the trick he played on everyone, as if to underscore his contempt for those gullible enough to fall for it.
This behavior shows all the markings of a megalomaniac who has enjoyed uncontested power far too long. Or a con artist who outsmarted the police and everyone else and can’t resist boasting about it to friends and acquaintances.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior official in the Russian Orthodox Church, praised Putin’s “honest” return to power this week. “When in the history of Russia has top government power been handed over so peacefully, properly, honestly and friendly?” he said. “This is a genuine example of kindness and morality in politics that … citizens in the majority of countries, including those that try to lecture to us, can envy.”
Perhaps Medvedev came up with the best justification for the secret agreement to switch places. During his speech to the convention, he said: “I hope that you will understand us. … It was a reasonable political decision, one that followed the laws of politics that are specific to our country. But I would like to emphasize one thing: We always spoke only the truth.”
In most democratic countries, however, speaking this kind of “truth” would mean the end of a politician’s career.
So what now? The winds of change may be blowing across the Arab world, rolling from Egypt to Tripoli’s Green Square. But Russians are looking at an endless Putin epoch, and a long period of political stagnation.
It’s a bleak prospect. Liberals in Moscow and St Petersburg were yesterday posting a photo of Putin mocked up to look like Leonid Brezhnev – complete with military uniform, patriotic Soviet medals and a hammer and sickle. Putin even got Brezhnevian eyebrows.
Actually, the comparisons with the Brezhnev era are spot-on. Brezhnev presided over another era of political and economic stagnation, the 1970s, sustained by a commodities boom and high oil prices. He also had a war – he sent the Red Army to invade Afghanistan. In 2008 Putin did the same thing. He sent Russian tanks into Georgia, promising to hang Georgia’s pro-western leader Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls”. It was a brutal lesson in neighbourhood geopolitics.
Brezhnev also presided over an Olympics – Moscow, 1980. Putin has the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to look forward to, as well as the 2018 World Cup. (The scenario is already tantalising: an ignominious first-round exit by England after an off-form Wayne Rooney falls mysteriously ill with food poisoning. Foul play is discounted since England play so badly anyway. The Russian team sweeps to victory on the back of patriotic fervour and a curious offside decision.)
Some commentators have persuasively suggested that Putin is tired of being Russia’s leader. He would like nothing better, they argue, than to relax in his new palace in Sochi, on Russia’s balmy Black Sea coast. The logic, however, of Putin’s corrupt vertical state, is that he is forced to carry on. Putin is the only person capable of arbitrating between the Kremlin’s rival factions, who are locked in a permanent and exhausting battle for money and influence. Without him, they argue, the system would fall apart.
Most crucially, Putin faces the prospect of law enforcement investigations into his alleged secret assets, should he ever decide to step off the throne. According to US diplomats, his main motivation for carrying on is to guarantee the safety of his own assets and those of his inner circle. No one quite knows how much Putin and his friends are worth. (Several of them feature prominently on the Forbes annual list.) But the sums involved allegedly total many billions of dollars.
All this, of course, assumes that there is no revolution. With no prospect of removing Putin from power peacefully, and the Kremlin’s succession politics as byzantine as ever, could it be a matter of time before Russians take things into their own hands? True, Putin is still Russia’s most popular politician. But he is less popular than he was. And while his return to the Kremlin is guaranteed, his nervousness that he may one day be overthrown can only grow.