THE PRESIDENT’S SPRING

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Putin will have to break some traditions after he leaves office

This is Vladimir Putin’s second-last spring as president of Russia. Who will replace him in the Kremlin, and what course will Russia take from there? And here’s another interesting dilemma: what will Putin do after he steps down?


Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky dropped a meaningful hint on his “Real Politics” television program: this is Vladimir Putin’s second-last spring as president of Russia. Who will replace him in the Kremlin, and what course will Russia take from there? And here’s another interesting dilemma: what will Putin do after he steps down?

Pollsters have long been exploring this issue, doing all kinds of polls. They say that a paradoxical situation is taking shape. Most citizens don’t want to let go of Putin. He’s youthful, dynamic, energetic. He’s getting a lot done. Most importantly, there’s no sign of any other individual who might be worth supporting instead of Putin. Dmitri Medvedev, former head of the presidential administration, has a hard time when he tries to imitate Putin. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov looks more resolute, outwardly. He’s trying to be appealing, but his image-makers are doing a poor job. These politicians won’t be able to rely entirely on Putin’s popularity. As a prominent Russian-American political analyst put it, Putin’s approval rating “isn’t like a pie that he can just cut and share around.”

A look at television broadcasting makes it clear that the Kremlin is trying very hard to change this situation. And in the West, as in bygone days, Kremlinologists are keeping track of how much television coverage is given to any particular “successor” candidate, aiming to identify the favorite. Yet the image of a new Father-Tsar is eluding everyone – the people, the pollsters, and the West. Whenever anything bad happens, low-ranking state officials take the blame. If it’s something very serious, Cabinet ministers are publicly reprimanded. (Note that Senior Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev is gradually adopting reprimands as a leadership style.)

There’s still some time to spare, of course: if the Kremlin forms a united front, it will be able to ensure an election victory for its chosen candidate. And there’s a different option as well: the Kremlin might be holding another presidential candidate in reserve, to be announced later on.

Meanwhile, Putin’s popularity is sky-high. The second-highest rating belongs to Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Therein lies Russia’s fortune and misfortune. So the problem of what Putin will do after he leaves the Kremlin becomes extremely relevant.

Putin himself said recently that he can’t see himself going into business. Well, if it won’t be business, that means either private life or public activity, or other forms of political activity.

But there are some different aspects to consider here. Unfortunately, Russian history shows a lack of demand for the political experience of former leaders. The De Gaulle phenomenon could only happen in Russia under extremely unusual circumstances. Demand might also be lacking in Russia for what is common practice in the United States, for example: former presidents remaining prominent members of the political elite. It can’t be ruled out, however, that Putin may succeed in breaking this tradition. More precisely, this tradition will simply have to be broken.

The point here is that evaluations of our country’s former leaders don’t depend on whether they survive to the point where they can calmly step down and retire into private life, or whether they die in office. The problem is that we really don’t have any tradition of leaders remaining in power for a set number of years and then stepping down, making way for a new head of state. True, the last two leaders – Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin – have broken that tradition. But that’s in outward appearances only, and the full circumstances of their departure from office still await the pen of a talented historian. And most citizens disapprove of the results of their activities. Thus, even if the Kremlin wanted to follow America’s example and make use of former leaders by appointing them as special envoys and entrusting them with sensitive diplomatic assignments, this would only hurt the Kremlin itself. Yet both Gorbachev and Yeltsin also enjoyed high approval ratings, until the people’s love turned rapidly into hatred. And if it weren’t for their guarantees of immunity from prosecution, it’s hard to say where “the anger of the fallen and deceived” might lead.

So here’s the main conclusion: only democracy, as a political system and a system of relationships between people, can ensure that leaders have the opportunity to lead normal lives after their political careers are over. A political system, including Putin-era democracy, may be judged by how its presidents live after leaving office.

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