AND WHAT IF IT’S PUTIN?

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Russia’s fears about the post-Putin era

The situation developing around the presidential election indicates that Russia’s political system is substantially incomplete. Our country remains dependent on the guessing-games we inherited from the USSR: will fortune favor us with this new leader, or not?


The public seems to have become convinced that Russia will have a new president in 2008. Vladimir Putin himself has said so, repeatedly. And yet…

A seemingly unimportant news story – coverage of Putin’s brief vacation in Tyva – stirred up the political beau monde in Moscow and elsewhere. What happened? Putin “simply” went fishing, boating, riding, hunting… We have seen Putin in various clothing before: a pilot’s outfit, his judo wear, a sober European-style suit, or casual jeans. But never before had television broadcasts shown us such a fit, trim, athletic president.

We can now say proudly that not only do we have the world’s best ballet, the world’s largest reserves of oil and gas, and the closest approaches to the North Pole… but we can also display the world’s best presidential torso.

Western media reports are also commenting on Putin’s vacation footage in a political context: The Times called it a “demonstration of political confidence” and an episode in the battle for power, noting that Putin is in remarkably good shape for a man of his age (54).

It’s interesting to note that politicians have become involved in the discussion of the president’s torso. What if there’s a hidden purpose to all this? It may be no coincidence that the most wise and insightful President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, fresh from a brilliant and instructive parliamentary election victory, has given the Russian people some heartfelt, fatherly advice: cast aside your doubts, don’t worry about what the West might say, just persuade Vladimir Putin to accept a third term in office.

Actually, even before the president’s torso was displayed on television, it was already clear that our country is seriously into Putin. Trust ratings of 75% don’t grow on trees, after all. Despite all our problems, inflation, and corruption, people have come to believe that Russia is on the right track and the driver can handle the route.

What’s more, the political muscles and torsos of the potential successors still aren’t taking shape. Just like six months ago, opinion polls indicate that no other candidate would score more than 2-3% of the vote if Putin were to run for president again. Besides, all the contenders (except Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov) keep insisting that they will stick to the Putin line and continue his policies. They’re even saying that they will “look to Putin” constantly. In that case, ordinary voters may well wonder why we should replace a tried-and-tested leader with some unknown quantity.

The situation developing around the presidential election indicates that Russia’s political system is substantially incomplete. Our country remains dependent on the guessing-games we inherited from the USSR: will fortune favor us with this new leader, or not? And we experience a major shake-up with almost every changing of the guard in the Kremlin.

There is simply no comparison between the political weight of Vladimir Putin and surrounding politicians. Citizens are fearful: what if the oligarchs raise their heads again, under a less muscular leader? What if the regional barons become active again? What if other countries start treating us with contempt again, like in the Yeltsin era? Besides, all the potential successors are political appointees, not affiliated with any party. Their sole source of political support is Putin himself. And even if the potential successors join parties at the last moment, gaining the status of party candidates, voters would still perceive them as appointees.

That’s why citizens are clinging to Putin so tightly: because they fear that things might get worse under a new leader. The system’s walls might wobble – since they are held up only by a popular leader, rather than any political bulwarks or checks and balances. Stability has started yielding its first dividends: for business, for ordinary citizens, for Russia’s foriegn policy. And our country wants to maintain that. We face a choice between the democratic desire to abide by the Constitution, and political expediency. It’s a tough choice.

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