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Friday, January 11, 2008

The Gun on Putin's Wall

Writing in the Moscow Times Robert Coalson, a Russia analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague, tells us about that gun up there on Putin's wall:

Despite the calm of the holiday season, tension is mounting in Russia's political environment. And it is a natural product of the unique form of political theater -- imitation democracy -- that the political system has evolved into over the last eight years.

On the surface, the official narrative of the current power transition has been a tale of stability, continuity, and -- to use an autocratic Russian word that has inexplicably made a comeback -- preemstvennost, or succession. Throughout the campaign leading up to the State Duma elections in December, the Kremlin's mantra was that a vote for United Russia is a vote for "more of the same," for maintaining the course supposedly laid out by President Vladimir Putin.

After Putin tapped First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, the media spin focused on their long years of -- yes, some outlets used the word -- collaboration. Medvedev was drawn as "Putin lite" and "Putin's little brother" and so on. Some observers commented that the stiff and colorless Medvedev had been coached by Putin's handlers to adopt the president's manners of speech and gesture. The preceding months of speculation, during which at least a dozen potential successors were bandied about, make it difficult for the Kremlin to spin Medvedev as the "inevitable" successor to Putin, but the administration keeps trying. Leonid Polyakov, of the Higher School of Economics, told last month that the tandem of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin "is the real foundation of political stability for many years ahead."

Nonetheless, doubts persist and grow. Will 2008 be a year of continuity or great change for Russia?

Part of the reason for the doubts is the other thread of the Kremlin's succession campaign -- hyperbolic claims that any change would inevitably lead to violence, instability, and possibly the dismemberment of Russia. Although the December "referendum on Putin" was scripted to show that change had been rejected, the lingering sense that the Putin system is not as stable as it seems hangs in the air. Widespread talk of -- and considerable tangible evidence of -- conflict among the ruling clans adds to the impression of looming danger.

Another element of the tension is Putin's own style of political management, the style that produced the spectacle of political theater that Russia has become. In a recent interview, always-colorful analyst Gleb Pavlovsky described Putin as "an author of uncertainty" who is following "a strategy of uncertainty." The accepted wisdom on Putin is that he generally follows policies that maximize his future political options, and his handling of the current power transition would seem to be a clear case in point. The result, however, is a highly personalized political system that lacks institutions. As political scientist Lilia Shevtsova wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, Putin's "quest for stability through political crackdown has created a situation in which neither he nor anyone else in Russia knows what will happen after March 2008."

Over the medium term, Shevtsova sees danger in Russia's "pseudo democracy." "Imitation democracies ... only serve to discredit liberal democratic institutions and principles, and the citizens living within them may at some point actually prefer a real 'iron hand.'" That danger cannot be ignored in the context of the possible discontent among some in the so-called Chekist clan and the state's near-total domination of the media and civil-society institutions.

Fears that continuity might not be an option are also stoked by contentions that Russia's economic prosperity has a weak foundation. The country has done little to wean itself from a dependence on energy exports, and high revenues from those experts have allowed officials and businesses to avoid necessary reforms and mask inefficiencies. Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, has urged that business must carry out "a fundamental modernization of its technical base" in the next four years as internal price controls on energy are phased out.

The government will soon liberalize policies for using some of the funds currently locked in the stabilization fund, prompting warnings that an injudicious move could spark a serious acceleration of inflation. A conflict over these billions could exacerbate tensions between the haves, who would benefit from controlling the money, and the have-nots, who would suffer most acutely from any inflationary consequences.

And Putin's undermining of democracy and the government's legitimacy could leave the country more vulnerable to such shocks. "Genuine prosperity is based on democracy, on the confidence that your decisions and your rights will be reliably protected by the law," analyst Denis Dragunsky has observed. Igor Bunin, of the Center for Political Technologies, also emphasizes the country's vulnerability to social unrest and lays the blame on imitation democracy. Under the Putin system, "there are no institutions, neither political, nor legal, nor social, capable of ensuring stability and prosperity."

One of the maxims of drama, attributed to Anton Chekhov, is that if there is a gun hanging on the wall at the beginning of a play, it must be fired before the end. Pavlovsky refers to this image when he describes the current phase of Russia's political theater. "The gun is hanging on the wall," he told "In principle, the show could be interrupted at the most interesting moment. A fireman could come in and take the gun from the wall and carry it off. Or a maniac could begin shooting up the spectators."

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