The end of the Putin era won’t be the end of the world

Vladimir Putin’s departure from the Kremlin appears to be a settled matter; he seems to be looking forward to his demobilization. All that remains to be done is arranging the election of his successor, and this won’t be too difficult a task. There is no reason to expect a crisis in 2008.

Predicting the end of the world is a favorite pastime of the human race: naming a specific date, then updating it regularly when the end fails to occur. Some of the latest predictions include the Year 2000 Problem, when all computer systems were supposed to crash, or the Year 2003 Problem, when Russia’s aging infrastructure was supposed to collapse all at once. Those years came and went – and now another crisis of the system (a political crisis this time) is being predicted for 2007-08. What’s more, it’s being predicted not only by those who would love to see the system come crashing down, but also by those who are responsible for protecting it.

So let’s try to work out what might doom us all. In order to do that, we first need to distinguish between the Duma election and the presidential election: 2007 and 2008. The next Duma is sure to be incomparable – everyone agrees on that. In the fields of party-building and electoral legislation, administrative creativity has reached such dizzying heights that the next Duma can be discounted entirely as an institution. We’re likely to see a house of parliament where the Communists will look like a model of common sense, and even they will be in the minority. In general, the Duma will be neither a stabilizing nor a destabilizing factor; essentially, it will be a nonentity. This is regrettable, but it’s not enough to cause a full-scale crisis of the system.

The forthcoming absence of the parliament (which doesn’t have much of a presence now) is one thing, but the change of president is quite another. Collapsing these two issues into one only complicates the case. Vladimir Putin’s departure from the Kremlin appears to be a settled matter; he seems to be looking forward to his demobilization. All that remains to be done is arranging the election of his successor. Given the extreme insignificance of the opposition (which the opposition itself acknowledges), this doesn’t seem to be an unsolvable problem. Indeed, it would be challenging to make Russian citizens adore the incoming successor by the start of 2008; but that is unnecessary. Getting him elected president without too much fraud is a sufficient objective.

From that point, the logic of a new reign takes effect: “The king is dead (only in the political sense, of course), long live the king!” The new ruler might not be an instant success – it might take him some time to acquire the minimal skills of handling state affairs – but there will be some room for error. At least the new ruler will have the important advantage of starting from a clean slate. At least he won’t be (entirely) a hostage to decisions made in the previous reign. After all, the totality of decisions made by any ruler gradually locks him into a rut which becomes harder and harder to escape. It’s not just a matter of simple obstinacy. His decisions (perhaps mistaken) are usually based on principles (perhaps also mistaken), resulting in a fairly narrow corridor for subsequent decisions. On the other hand, a ruler who doesn’t consider himself bound by his own prior decisions or any principles becomes a ruler who appears to be free, but is actually a reed in the wind, and rapidly loses authority. So the simple instinct of holding on to power will prompt a ruler to remain within the framework of the policies he has already mapped out – even if it’s obvious that they are in some way mistaken. It takes a very severe crisis to jolt a ruler out of his self-created rut. Besides, there’s also the inevitable factor of cumulative exhaustion. Ruling a state is actually very hard work; each year seems like three years, and a ruler’s strength melts away, leaving him too tired to think of getting out of his rut. At some point, the ruler starts looking forward to leaving office.

Yet it seems too pessimistic to assume that the successor, not bound to follow all of his predecessor’s principles, and not yet stuck in his own rut, wouldn’t try to correct some very obvious errors and weaknesses. Such an assumption would imply that Russia really is a cursed country, or that there is some sort of specific policy line that a successor is bound to follow. Simple inertia and exhaustion wouldn’t suffice. But all of Russian history over the past few centuries shows that no successor follows his predecessor’s orders automatically. A new reign is always a new reign.

In making such predictions, people are probably misled by the theory of Putin as “Russia’s Deng Xiaoping” – the “powerful citizen” who leaves the Kremlin but retains or even increases his extensive powers. No one can explain where this theory came from or what precedent it is based on; people just claim it will happen. Their reasoning might be affected by a dichotomy – perceiving an ex-ruler as either a powerful citizen or an outcast, with no third option considered – although both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin disprove this dichotomy by their very existence. Providing a necessary measure of immunity for an ex-ruler is certainly different from these fantasies about a powerful citizen. The former is realistic, the latter is not.

Putin’s sky-high popularity rating might be another source of confusion. Still, he isn’t the first Russian politician to enjoy such popularity. Yevgeny Primakov’s rating was also sky-high in 1999 – and then Primakov was dismissed, and his rating disappeared, but the sky didn’t fall. Neither will the sky fall when Putin leaves office. All we’ll see is a rise in the popularity rating of his successor. Unless the successor does something spectacularly stupid, he will become popular, just like Putin, and things will continue as before.

How will the successor set about solving Russia’s problems? That is a separate question. Still, the apocalyptic perception of the Year 2008 Problem is only evidence that it’s best not to make up any stupid propaganda – or if you do make it up, it’s best not to believe it too strongly yourself. Then everything would be much calmer.