Russia faces the risk of stagnation after 2008

Vladimir Putin, whom many had written off as just an outgoing president, has regained the potential to run the country for many years to come. The American model, with its compulsory rotation of leaders every eight years, has been discarded.

A new political era has suddenly dawned in Russia. With a single stroke, Vladimir Putin, whom many had written off as just an outgoing president, has regained the potential to run the country for many years (if not decades) to come. The American model, with its compulsory rotation of leaders every eight years, has been discarded.

Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi may be regarded as a symbol of our new political system. He implemented a “Putin plan” back in 1995: after stepping down from the presidency, he shifted to the post of prime minister.

By declaring that he would be prepared to become the prime minister, Putin has dealt a mortal blow to the ambitions of several politicians in his inner circle who have been trying the presidential crown on for size already.

But the Russian political class as a whole has breathed a sigh of relief. No more fears of an inevitable redistribution of assets and influence due to the changing of the guard in the Kremlin. Now there’s no longer any prospect of a real changing of the guard. From now on, all the suspense in Russian politics will focus on technicalities.

According to the Constitution, all the most important powers are concentrated in the president’s hands. Would Prime Minister Putin amend the Constitution? In principle, there wouldn’t be any great need to do so. Regardless of what is written in the Constitution, everyone – especially President Viktor Zubkov – would always know who’s the real boss.

Yet the political situation has a habit of changing. Wouldn’t it be better to eliminate even the hypothetical possibility of two alternative centers of power emerging? And is there any point in holding direct popular presidential elections if the holder of that office will be confined to ceremonial duties from now on?

But wouldn’t all these reforms cause too much fuss at home and abroad, with allegations that Russia is “dismantling democracy”?

So maybe the game isn’t worth the candle after all? And besides, does Putin plan to remain prime minister for long? After all, he could become president again after a certain interval.

Throughout most of our history, the Kremlin has been the sacred center of power in Russia. Would Prime Minister Putin retain his usual office space in the Kremlin, or would he comply with proprieties and move to the far less impressive and comfortable Cabinet building?

But these are merely details, with little impact on real life – especially since the answers to these questions depend entirely on Putin’s own decisions. The important point is that there has been a major tectonic shift in Russian politics over the past two days.

The record of even a political genius such as Franklin D. Roosevelt shows very clearly that a state should be based on a political system, not an individual. Being in power will wear out anyone. A leader becomes less physically fit, starts thinking less clearly, starts developing habitual patterns in taking action.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union clearly demonstrated where this can lead. If Brezhnev had been replaced by a new and vigorous leader after his first eight years (in 1972), the history of our state may have been very different.

Putin is no Brezhnev, of course. His physical fitness level is excellent, and may well remain that way for decades to come. But the danger of political stagnation in Russia is greater than ever. Even before Putin’s sensational statement, our political system was marching into stagnation in seven-league boots. The institutions of public politics created in the Yeltsin era – such as the Duma and the Federation Council – have rapidly lost internal content, turning into parodies of themselves. Real leverage and power have been increasingly concentrated among a handful of unelected officials. It’s no coincidence that the Zubkov Cabinet bears a strong resemblance to a family club.

Until recently, however, there remained the hope that after the big shake-up of the changeover in 2008, the situation might change. Now this hope is gone.

Of course, there was also the real danger that Putin’s departure might lead to large-scale instability. After all, the entire political system has been honed to suit one person. Now this danger is gone – but we have paid a very high price for that, and will continue to pay it. The danger of large-scale instability hasn’t actually vanished; not at all. It’s only been postponed indefinitely.

Russia no longer has a clear and transparent mechanism for transferring power. As a society, we have demonstrated our inability to take a logical and necessary step forward. But any child knows that if a step is scary and painful, but necessary, it’s best not to put it off. Procrastination only makes it scarier and more painful.

Undoubtedly, Putin’s decision will draw a great deal of criticism – and a substantial proportion of that criticism will be well-founded. But it would be highly hypocritical to blame everything on Putin alone. Even in the most democratic countries, no one ever surrenders power voluntarily. Power, by definition, is always taken by the strongest contender. For instance, what would happen if Western leaders were able to perform Putin-style “my successor is myself” operations? A great many of them would be glad to do it.

But such things are inconceivable in the West. Leaders are kept in line by their own citizens. Russian citizens, on the other hand, mostly don’t care. The authorities and ordinary citizens live in entirely separate worlds here. So let’s not blame everything on Putin. He has only picked up something that was left lying around.