Why Putin won’t be able to do a Deng Xiaoping

It doesn’t look like Vladimir Putin can manage an elegant solution to the Year 2008 Problem after all. As the fateful date approaches, the Kremlin’s maneuvers are looking increasingly awkward and convoluted – while the music of sovereign democracy is playing more loudly and sounding more phony.

Well, it doesn’t look like Vladimir Putin can manage an elegant solution to the Year 2008 Problem after all. As the fateful date approaches, the Kremlin’s maneuvers are looking increasingly awkward and convoluted – while the music of sovereign democracy is playing more loudly and sounding more phony.

We have seen pleas from textile factory workers, open letters from the “creative intelligentsia,” an ersatz wave of public rallies and appeals from the regions. All are swearing to carry out the Putin Plan – which doesn’t exist. It turns out that the “Putin Plan” is just the title of United Russia’s campaign policy program. It turns out that our parliamentary election isn’t an election at all; it’s a referendum on confidence in the outgoing president, who has no intention of becoming a Duma lawmaker.

In order to make ends meet somehow, the Putin courtiers are competing to come up with more projects. One proposes to convene a Zemskii Council and swear oaths of loyalty to Putin. Another confines himself to proposing radical changes in Russia’s system of governance.

Feel the dialectic? In order to observe the Constitution, it’s necessary to change the system of governance; and in order to maintain the system of governance, it’s necessary to amend the Constitution. The two aren’t really compatible – the inconsistencies are glaring.

Yet it seemed like such a simple matter, at first. Vladimir Putin seemed to hold all the cards. As the end of his constitutional term approached, all he had to do was find a replacement who would be completely loyal, identifying as an appointee of the corporation led by Putin and serving as guarantor for that corporation’s asset redistributions. To provide a solid grounding, this construct required a hegemonic party to control the parliament and actively influence decision-making. The principle of the successor being accountable to the corporation could be institutionalized via this party. And Putin, acting through the party, could remain the corporation’s leader – and thus the leader of Russia as well.

But this plan had to be abandoned. It was discovered that the sense of common purpose that united the corporation as it started redistributing assets and taking over the state had completely vanished once the commanding heights had been seized and parceled out. Moreover, in order to entrench his personal power and retain control over the disintegrating corporation, Putin was forced to allow differences to accumulate between the corporation’s various factions, and maintain conflict between them. And the attempt to transform the Kremlin’s party into a ruling party ran up against insurmountable obstacles.

The new plan seemed quite elegant, and was designed to address the abovementioned circumstances. Let’s have two loyal successors competing with each other, and two pro-Putin parties competing with each other. Whoever can manage to gain Putin’s favor will win. Two successors, two parties – and one voter, with everyone waiting on tenterhooks for him to express his will. Kind of like democracy for penguins.

But this plan had to be abandoned as well. Lackluster and timid as the deputy prime minister successors were, both of them reluctantly faced the need to start building support coalitions for themselves, boosting their influence within the state bureaucracy, and making some sort of semi-independent decisions. That meant mastering the techniques of governing the country, and acquiring a taste for it. And the rivalry between two party clienteles soon turned into a brawl, disrupting solidarity and the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Of course, Vladimir Putin himself would prefer a “succession” model a la Deng Xiaoping: retaining indisputable authority and the levers of influence, while not holding senior state office. Yet this is impossible.

By the early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping was a real patriarch. He joined the Communist Party and became a revolutionary in the 1920s, rising to the top of the party hierarchy by the 1950s, losing everything (twice) and surviving two periods of exile. He was the party’s living legend – and at the same time, having been in opposition to the party leadership for years, he was not a conservative, but a proponent of modernizing the system. Moreover, due to his age, Deng Xiaoping was engaged in structuring a succession system for those who would come after him, not for himself. That’s a different matter entirely.

Putin’s political biography is rather the reverse. He was swept to power in the kaleidescope of the post-revolutionary era, and the traditional elites still tend to view him as an upstart. They flatter and honor him – but this is a direct function of the fear he has managed to instill in them; or, to be more precise, the explosive mixture of fear and greed that is the mainstay of the executive-distributive hierarchy.

Consequently, as he performs the maneuvers aimed at transforming him into a “national leader” like Deng Xiaoping, Putin can’t actually let go of power or relax the reins for a single moment. Instead, he’s forced to tighten he reins still further. He’s forced to seek some sort of palliative methods of bolstering his legitimacy – such as heading United Russia’s candidate list all by himself, along with institutionalizing and encouraging his own cult of personality. And the logic of events suggests that he should carry out yet another act of repression as an object lesson: so that those who are shouting “Putin is our helmsman” won’t lose a visceral sense of what those words really mean.

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