Putin? Oh, What a Surprise!

Russia took the news of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin with total calm. Skeptics might even say indifference. Though the presidential elections will be held only in March, they’ve effectively taken place. Smiling joyfully, President Dmitri Medvedev passed the crown back to Prime Minister Putin, who, in turn, promised Medvedev the prime ministry.

Of course, there are people in Russia and elsewhere who are unhappy that the elections will be a formality. But then even if there were a free clash of candidates (including Medvedev), Putin would still win. Most Russians like Putin. He satisfies their idea of a strong president — a healthy man with a powerful torso, a sex-symbol of sorts, a tough talker who firmly defends the national interest.

What if the entire opposition, even people outside the political system, were permitted to participate and to criticize Putin freely on all TV channels? Would he then lose? No, he would still win. But the foundations of the Kremlin’s authority would be shaken and partly eroded, and they would have to be repaired, the way Putin did when he first entered the Kremlin in 2000 after the chaos of democratization in the 1990s.

Thus ends the Putin-Medvedev duopoly. Medvedev did not betray his senior comrade. He relinquished power without a struggle, apparently in accordance with obligations he accepted from the outset. But was there really any division of power in Russia, even a little bit? Or was it totally imaginary? Looking back, was not Medvedev just a part of Putin, while Putin — the big, important Putin — always consisted of Medvedev and himself?

Medvedev had some good intentions. Thank you, Dmitri Anatolyevich. But the page has turned.

Am I afraid that if I write something alarming and unflattering about the new-old president Putin — for example, that he is a soft dictator or that in 12 years (if he stays for two terms) Russia may be ripe for an Arab Spring-like revolution — I, a Russian writer, will get smacked on the head? No, I’m not afraid. For now.

Saturday began as usual. I took my six-year-old daughter Maya to the dentist to check how her baby teeth were coming, and then to the playground. At midday I learned that we’ll have Putin again. None of my friends called. That meant this was not news to any of them.

I too had heard that sometime over the summer, Putin and Medvedev went bicycling outside Moscow and that Medvedev looked stunned upon their return. Is that when it happened?

True, some continued waiting for a miracle; they thought that in his soul Putin wouldn’t want to continue carrying Russia for the next 12 years. It would be like driving a full oil tanker, very heavy and clumsy. But he apparently decided that nobody could handle the tanker better than he, and that power is sweet even if it stinks of oil.

Why, then, was anyone waiting for a miracle? Apparently because over the past two years Medvedev decided to try to move Russia closer to universal — or more accurately European — values, and Russia desperately needed this. He said “Russia, forward!”: He proposed modernization; condemned the criminal justice system, which still smacks of Stalin’s Gulag; renamed the militia the “police”; joined the Western coalition on Libya; and — well, etc. etc.

Yes, but Putin never ceased being No. 1. Putin can take different shapes. In his lifestyle, he is fully European. This is heartening. It is also heartening that he rehabilitated the White Russian movement and condemned Stalinist repression. Yet he clearly misses the former greatness of Soviet Russia. This is disheartening, especially to our neighbors.

Unlike Medvedev, Putin is likely to lead Russia not toward Europe, but along some roundabout “third way,” through various Venezuelas and other strange friends, and this way will not always appeal to the West. And what about bloodthirstiness? Will there be more Khodorkovskys? I don’t know.

What I do know is that Putin is more liberal in his views than 80 percent of the Russian population, which is more nationalistic and xenophobic than he is. Say what you want, but he is a shield against negative feelings in what is basically a very poor country. We don’t need revolutions from below. The liberal resources of Russia are laughably small and get smaller all the time, either because liberals don’t know how to deal with the Kremlin or because young liberals are fleeing to the West.

So if the hopes for a miracle are finished, let there be realpolitik. If Putin will be a pragmatist, good. Good also for me personally. If we can hang on to the personal freedoms that Putin gave us in the early 2000s, this won’t be so bad at all.

Still, the country’s morale is low — corruption has become a shameless way of life; there’s a lot of aggression. The head of Russia’s Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, recently declared that Russia has 20 times more murders than the European Union. Scary. In coming years Russians could start moving toward an ideological alliance of power and religion, à la Iran, and it could lead to unforeseen consequences. So, long live Putin the pragmatist! We don’t need Eastern ayatollahs.

The telephone remains silent. Nobody is reacting.

Victor Erofeyev, a Russian writer and television host. Translated from the Russian by the International Herald Tribune.

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