Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Thoughts on the Putin Announcement
First, Putin's announcement provides the strongest answer to date to the question as to whether the system being created in Russia could be managed by anyone who happened to sit in the presidential chair versus needed Putin as a specific individual to serve as referee and judge between the various factions and clans that form Kremlin, Inc. Putin is still needed. Most of the key "clan leaders" would prefer to defer to Putin's judgment (and his generally even-handed division of spoils) than risk losing everything should a rival be elevated to supreme power. It may also be that Putin remains the key driving force behind the consolidation of a new Russian political-economic system as well as providing much of the vision for how it should develop and evolve.
Second, it demonstrates that the "concrete is still wet" on the infrastructure being created--and Putin is needed to continue to guide his creation to the point it achieves a greater degree of permanence.
It also I think is a very clear signal that many of the key players in Russia still expect major conflicts ahead over division of assets and over the direction of policy; that the clash we saw between Gazprom and Rosneft over the division of YUKOS heralded further divisions--and that Putin is needed to continue to lay down the law.
Finally, it is proof that the system has not yet figured out how to replicate itself and to find new trustworthy personnel. This may be because the "recruiting grounds" for the next generation (say, as in France, in the elite schools) have not yet been firmly established. It also points to the fact that the bonds holding together the political system are still more personal than systemic.
The constitutionally-mandated term limits have forced the Russian elite to come up with another way to keep Putin around, even if for the short term (say to 2010 or 2012), to see whether he can still shepherd his creation to the point where it has much more independent viability, and replicate itself.
A signal to look for:
After the Duma elections in December, does the new legislature pass new enabling legislation "On the Government" that enhances the perogatives of the prime minister (e.g. gives the PM control over the security and power ministries)? That would be a sign that perhaps Putin will embrace a role as prime minister.
These remarks prompt what seems to me an obvious question: what do we actually want to see happen in Russia?
If in fact the stability of the system rests heavily on Putin -- both his acceptability as some kind of impartial arbiter between different factions and clans, and his personal popularity -- then what would happen if in fact he did move aside?
It would seem to me that the last thing anyone in their right mind would wish to see would be a return to the anarchic conditions of the Yeltsin period. For one thing, insofar as there is a real risk of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons, it never lay in Saddam Hussein giving nukes he did not have to jihadists with whom he was at daggers drawn. It lies in Pakistan and in Russia.
There seems to be an extraordinary assumption in a great deal of Western press commentary that somehow Russians can be expected to rally behind Western-oriented liberals -- and that the likes of Gary Kasparov are somehow the natural leaders of Russian society.
This frankly, is demented -- like the parallel assumption that crooks like Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky were turning virtuous, when the vicious Mr Putin turned on them.
We really do ourselves no favours by this kind of self-delusion!