Had Vladimir Putin cancelled next year’s presidential election, the stage-managed announcement on Saturday that he and Medvedev would swap places as president and prime minister might have had the benefit of saving everyone in Russia and beyond a lot of time and money. No such luck. Russians are stuck with knowing the results of next year’s election six months before it takes place and having to pay for the redundant process of affirmation. The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta went one stage further on Monday by getting an artist to sketch what Putin and his cabinet would look like in 2024, after two more terms of a Putin presidency.
The model of traditional Russian statism is at least true to itself. If this is no time to vote, parliament is, as its current speaker admitted, no place for discussion. Which is just as well, because it is no place for independent political parties either. Nor in this system is there any room for independent trade unions, courts or national TV channels. The personalisation of power, the amount of money that the ruling elite has creamed off in their daily dealings, the corruption that lubricates every part of the state, the number of secrets shared has become so burdensome that Putin’s problem is not keeping power. It is leaving it. The hole he has dug for himself is just too deep.
Putin’s enduring popularity provides, for some, a vindication of the way Russia is run. This is not a cause for congratulation. The problem is not that Putin has lost touch with his people. It is the reverse : that his brand of “soft” authoritarian rule is all too representative of his people and their deepest fears. After the turmoil of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin period, stability and rulers whose behaviour you can predict come at a higher premium than change. There are practical reasons for this. For some they are economic. Each new ruler entails a redistribution of economic wealth. A lot of banks and businesses were carved up after Yuri Luzhkov’s departure as the boss of Moscow. Are they run better now? Hardly. For others they are political. After Putin lies what, fascism?
The challenge posed by rulers who never go away is systemic. Touch one part of the vertical of power and the whole brittle structure collapses. There are professional economists who work within the system, but in the end, like Aleksei Kudrin, the finance minister who broke ranks on Sunday, or Andrei Illarionov before him, they are ejected. The system’s inability to manage change, and the popular memory that change is only for the worse, are responsible for the emigration of Russia’s best and brightest. Most never return. It is the only way of not growing old with Putin.