Russia's Approaching Nonelection

Speculation is rife whether President Dmitri Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will end up running next year in Russia’s presidential election. The supposed rivalry between a youthful reformer and his conservative mentor makes for welcome intrigue in a country where competing political views have long gone missing from the public discourse.

Putin, Russia’s president from 2000 to 2008, handpicked Medvedev from his Kremlin entourage because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive presidential terms. Now Putin could legally return to the presidency two more times — conceivably holding office until 2024, since one of Medvedev’s first legislative initiatives was to extend presidential terms from four years to six.

The partners in the so-called ruling tandem have left open which one of them will run for president next March, reacting with a mixture of irritation and embarrassment when journalists confront them with “the 2012 question.”

All the two leaders are willing to reveal is that they’ll reach a decision together, at the appropriate time. A premature announcement, Putin said in April, would cause half the government to stop working in anticipation of changes at the top.

While the choice between Medvedev, 45, and Putin, 58, may affect the career paths of individual ministers, it won’t change anything for ordinary Russians. For one, the two leaders themselves have repeatedly rejected the notion that there are significant differences between them. More importantly, it’s a foregone conclusion that the candidate with Putin’s name — or endorsement — will win the presidency. The top-down “power vertical” that Putin built as president endures, guaranteeing election results and locking out genuine opponents. Of Russia’s more than 100 million eligible voters, Putin has essentially become the only one whose voice counts.

Not even Medvedev, officially Putin’s boss, has much say. Plucked from obscurity, he owes his current job entirely to Putin. Although Medvedev made modernization of Russia’s corrupt, oil-based economy the catchword of his presidency, he has little to show for his efforts. More than once he has presided over tragicomic government meetings complaining that ministers ignore his orders. If Medvedev vanished from the political scene tomorrow, he wouldn’t leave a trace. He is a president without ambition, a power base or an electorate.

Russians expected more of democracy when they flocked to their first presidential elections 20 years ago this summer. After seven decades of Communist dictatorship, they were eager for a chance to determine their own destiny. They overwhelmingly elected Boris Yeltsin, an ex-Communist apparatchik who had embraced the cause of free-market, democratic reform. The euphoria didn’t last long, however, as the chaotic transition to capitalism plunged the country into poverty and pessimism.

While Yeltsin tolerated political opponents and media criticism, he also did not hesitate to use force against rebel legislators or to tap into “administrative resources” to get re-elected in 1996.

As his second term drew to a close, Yeltsin lacked the faith in Russian democracy to leave voters to their own devices. Instead he designated Putin, then a little-known Kremlin official, to preserve his legacy.

The transfer of power from one generation to the next has been a factor of instability throughout Russian history. Both the 300-year Romanov monarchy and the 20th century Soviet regime periodically faced the task of legitimizing successors amid court intrigue, betrayal and the threat of social unrest. Russia’s post-Communist leaders haven’t broken with that tradition, though it’s not clear if Putin chose a successor or simply postponed his own return. Medvedev lets Putin keep all his options open.

The formal observance of rules is the basis of the tandem’s legitimacy. There is no reason to doubt Putin’s pledge that the coming election will take place “in strict accordance” with the law; he relinquished the presidency in 2008 as required by the Constitution. At the same time, Putin has invoked the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to four consecutive terms to show that there’s nothing inherently undemocratic about a four-term presidency.

For now, Putin is focusing on December’s parliamentary elections. In May he seized the initiative with the creation of a “People’s Front,” an amorphous umbrella group that would merge his United Russia party with hundreds of professional and civic organizations. In a single move, Putin widened his base while acknowledging that the governing party — a growing target of scorn — is no longer capable of delivering a resounding victory on its own.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry cited technicalities in denying registration to a new opposition party that has attracted no more than 3 percent of the vote in recent opinion polls.

Putin doesn’t take anything for granted, even with a 70 percent approval rating and an electoral system tipped in favor of United Russia. The predictability of his political machine has effectively disenfranchised the country’s voters, depriving Russia of elections as a gauge of popular will. The leadership can never be sure of its true level of support, since its hold on power is premised on the passivity of the population rather than on the backing of an active citizenry.

By forming a giant coalition while squeezing out real opponents, Putin reduces the chance of organized social groups later turning against him. After all, protests triggered by accusations of election fraud led to the abrupt reversal of political fortunes in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine over the past decade.

The tandem is likely to announce its presidential candidate only after the parliamentary election has been squared away, as Putin did four years ago when he nominated Medvedev. Then, if all goes according to plan, the Kremlin candidate will sweep the election as the standard-bearer of strength and stability. Whatever the next president’s name, the winner will be Putin.

The greatest failure of Russia’s experiment with democracy is that no institutions have taken root that can check executive power and ensure continuity during times of political change. As recent history has demonstrated, political systems centered on personalities are inherently fragile, no matter how durable they may appear from the outside.

Lucian Kim, a journalist who has worked in Russia since 2003. He is writing a book about the Putin era.

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