The designated president: discussion is futile

In the Yeltsin era, future billionaires under the Kremlin’s patronage privatized the state’s assets. What’s happened in the Putin era is even more dangerous: the state itself has been privatized. “The state is mine!” That’s the slogan of the present-day authorities.

The presidential election hasn’t happened yet, but each and every Russian citizen knows the next president’s name already – and doesn’t see any alternative to him. No politically-informed citizen is likely to doubt that Dmitri Medvedev will win the election in March. Those who agree with the Kremlin, and those who disagree, know the outcome already; thus, the whole presidential campaign would seem to be just a formality. No one but President Vladimir Putin himself has any chance of influencing the election result, and everything will go as planned by the Kremlin. For Medvedev, the election doesn’t really matter. There’s only one way he could lose: if the outgoing president suddenly changes his mind. That is highly improbable.

In general, the alternative candidates are just the trimmings to the main course – and they’re sure to be left uneaten. Of course, they’ll all insist that participating in an election which they’re sure to lose is their one and only chance to communicate their views to the people.

There’s not much to say about the parties that expressed Putin’s will, presenting it as their own; their position is clear enough. I’d suggest taking a look at the assorted opposition forces: more precisely, at how they’re criticizing Medvedev and the fact of his nomination. They’re doing it delicately – so that there’s no chance of offending him, heaven forbid. They realize that if they accuse the successor of anything at this stage – lacking talent, or some other flaw – it would be difficult or impossible for them to approach him as president with their humble appeals for political assistance.

The reaction outside politics – among the business community and the so-called intelligentsia – is even more interesting. Over the past few days they’ve all been saying what a good thing it is that the designated successor is Medvedev – rather than the other senior deputy prime minister, or the ever-frowning prime minister, let alone one of the little-known but highly influential people from St. Petersburg. They’re pointing out that Medvedev a liberal, and a lawyer, and not hostile to private enterprise, and he’s been working on the social problems that matter to the people.

Putin has played a game of “good cop, bad cop” with Russia. So when the name of his preferred candidate was announced, everyone breathed a sigh of relief – even those who are skeptical about Medvedev.

The political beau monde is now guessing whether he will be a real president or a technical president. Will he be there to stay, or just as an interlude between Putin’s second and third terms? Or will most of the Kremlin’s powers shift to Government House after Putin becomes prime minister, as Medvedev has already proposed? All these questions are important, most likely, and should be discussed; but I don’t think everyone should be discussing them so publicly and with such serious expressions, as if the discussion participants had any real chance of arriving at the truth. In a country where all political decisions are made by a very small group of people, linked by the bonds of friendship and shared backgrounds, the only predictions anyone else can make are the predictions they are instructed to make. Any other talk is no more than the sound of water running down a drain.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Medvedev, once he becomes president, will follow Putin’s pattern of occasionally making “another unexpected move,” to applause from the excited audience clustered around the Kremlin. All the same, the reason why our leadership is unpredictable is not that its political thinking is so original; rather, it stems from the absence of state mechanisms – they have been destroyed and replaced by simple procedures for agreeing on intra-clan interests. Competition between different opinions has long since vanished from the parliament; public debate has vanished from the press; the idea of national referendums has been rejected as harmful and destabilizing. Roughly speaking, everything has been reduced to the primitive level: the tough guys get together in a convivial atmosphere over some food and beer, do a bit of bargaining, discuss current issues, and decide what should or should not happen. And the political service personnel will take it from there.

In the Yeltsin era, future billionaires under the Kremlin’s patronage privatized the state’s assets. What’s happened in the Putin era is even more dangerous: the state itself has been privatized. “The state is mine!” That’s the slogan of the present-day authorities. They can make any decision they want, with no regard for the law – because “the law is my law.” Hence, so is everything else: my gas, my oil, my timber, my armaments, my regions – and finally, my people, who will vote as they are told to vote by my media. And the media will tell them a simple truth: all that is good in our lives is entirely due to Putin, and his cause will be carried on by Medvedev. It could have been carried on by someone else. For the owners of the state, this person’s identity doesn’t really matter: you today, me tomorrow. None of them will be left out.