No third term: taking a rational view of President Putin

In recent months, there have been many subtle and unsubtle attempts to compare Vladimir Putin to Franklin D. Roosevelt – with the implication that Putin should stay on as president beyond two terms. Might it not be best to abandon comparisons? Let’s just agree that Putin is Putin.

Among the past week’s illuminating events was the Franklin D. Roosevelt conference at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO); we covered this conference and Vladislav Surkov’s speech there in a previous article. Actually, there was nothing fundamentally novel about this; President Vladimir Putin himself set the fashion for all things Rooseveltian when he quoted FDR in his address to parliament last year, using the majestic American example to highlight and elevate Putin’s own “New Deal” – fighting the oligarchy, overcoming the Great Depression, establishing state order. But neither the text nor the subtext of Putin’s address contained any hint at the third and fourth terms which the American people allowed Roosevelt. That hint came later, and without Putin’s sanction; it was loud and clear in television documentaries and numerous articles by political analysts, drawing strict parallels – the Great Depression, the Great President, the Great Victory. Documentary producers and political strategists prompted us to draw a simple conclusion: like FDR, Putin should stay on beyond two terms.

Verbal sparring is a pleasant thing, and can be quite captivating. One person speaks in support of sovereign democracy; another disparages that term and speaks in favor of democracy as such. One person describes Putin as “the master of the state” – like Tsar Nicholas II, who gave his occupation as “master of the Russian land” in the census of 1913; another compares Putin to Roosevelt – well, why not? All this is harmless and safe enough, as long as the words don’t take on real political meanings – as long as they’re not “actively brought to life,” to use the Soviet-era expression. Because then they would no longer be empty words, but real projects being prepared for sale, launched in test mode; and any project has its conditions for realization and a price that has to be paid. So let’s try taking a serious look at these words, shelling them to remove the political strategists’ pretty metaphors, peeking beneath the covers. Can they really be implemented? And if they can, what will they cost, and who would pay the price?

If Putin is truly “the master of the state,” that means Russia will soon restore the monarchy. And someone is already working in secret to convene an Assembly of the Lands, writing an oath of loyalty to the new royal dynasty, compiling a new map of Russian lands, sketching division of power arrangements: the Tsar reigns but does not rule, the parliament rules but does not reign. There’s no other way to set up the office of “master of the country.” However, holding an Assembly of the Lands implies that it follows a nationwide Time of Troubles, with the solution provided by divine intervention. Not the apparent Time of Troubles in the 1990s, which present-day rulers love to speak of, but a real Time of Troubles – prolonged, and involving bloodshed.

If Putin’s secret name is Roosevelt, there must be a serious war brewing – whether internal or external. Roosevelt got his third and fourth terms in office mostly due to the war, not just his own popularity. The war induced the American people to make an exception for Roosevelt, and induced Roosevelt himself to accept the challenge. This would have been impossible in any other historical context.

The situation surrounding Russia cannot be described as favorable. President Putin’s speech at the recent international security conference in Munich sounded like a challenge, and his demonstrative friendship with the Saudis is a fairly risky gesture against the backdrop of America’s conflict with Iran. All the same… can we really bring ourselves to imagine a protracted military conflict, with Russia being led out of it by an irreplaceable leader? No, we can’t. So do we believe in the possibility of domestic upheavals widespread and powerful enough to leave us with no choice but to accept a third term, on the principle of not changing horses in mid-stream? No, we don’t. Despite the Kondopoga riots and all similar events, we don’t. Or is there something we don’t know? For example, are we likely to face man-made disasters on a nationwide scale? Is there any threat of a military coup? No, apparently not. So why all this talk of Roosevelt and a third (or fourth) term?

Might it not be best to abandon comparisons and metaphors entirely? Let’s just agree that Putin is Putin. An officer who moves into big-time politics for a certain period, serves his term with an officer’s honor, does his duty as he understands it, and honestly hands over his powers to his replacement. In that case, we may criticize Putin’s specific actions, disagreeing with his tactics or strategy – but we would have to respect him. Restrained respect: that’s something new. We’re not accustomed to feeling that way about our national leaders. Still, it’s a very promising political feeling, since it is based on a rational attitude to any leader, present or future. No orgasmic delight, but no intense hatred either. It means regarding our leader as a normal and sensible head of state.