09.24.11

Return of President Putin

Vladimir Putin announced that he will run for president again in Russia's elections next year. Owen Matthews on how he's been orchestrating his comeback all along.

Welcome to the new Russia—same as the old Russia. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s once and future president, announced Saturday that he was going to stand for a third term as Russia’s president in elections next year, raising the possibility of two new terms in the Kremlin lasting until 2024. The announcement was made to a stadium filled with cheering crowds at a highly orchestrated conference of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. The only real surprise, though, was the timing. Most observers had expected Putin to wait until after the December parliamentary elections before declaring his return to the Kremlin in order to avoid a lengthy lame-duck presidency for his young, liberal protégé Dmitry Medvedev.

Evidently such considerations didn’t bother Putin. He’s been dropping broad hints that he plans to return to the Kremlin all year, so Medvedev was already something of a lame duck in any case. Indeed, Medvedev was never really more than a figurehead president, despite the theoretically huge powers attached to the job. Putin was forced to relinquish the Kremlin—in name at least—in 2008 because of a constitutional prohibition on serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. Medvedev, a St. Petersburg–trained lawyer then just 43, was Putin’s surprise choice as Russia’s third post-independence president. Many had expected Putin to choose a stronger candidate with a security-services background like himself. But such a president could have established an independent power base and eclipsed his patron Putin, just as Putin himself quickly ousted and exiled the friends and family of his own mentor, Boris Yeltsin. Medvedev was energetic, intelligent, liberal—and weak, which made him the perfect stand-in, keeping the Kremlin throne warm for Putin’s eventual return.

It was a particularly cruel piece of political theater to have Medvedev himself announce Putin’s return to crowds momentarily shocked into silence. Many Russian liberals had hoped that Medvedev’s frequent speeches criticizing Russia’s deep corruption and overreliance on oil, and talking up internet freedom and democracy, would one day be translated into deeds—and a new Russia. It was hard to hear of the death of those hopes from Medvedev’s own mouth.

"I think it's right that the party congress support the candidacy of head of the government, Vladimir Putin, in the role of the country's president," Medvedev told United Russia faithful, just after accepting a role as the party’s top leader. “Putin and I were often asked: When will you decide? Did you two fight? I want to entirely confirm what was just said: what we propose to the congress is a deeply thought-through decision."

It was a particularly cruel piece of political theater to have Medvedev himself announce Putin’s return.

Putin and Medvedev are to swap jobs, with Medvedev becoming prime minister. That job carried little inherent power before Putin decided to occupy it after stepping down from the presidency in 2008, and it is likely to be demoted again to a caretaker position now that Putin is planning a return to the Kremlin.

An early indication that Medvedev had little chance of ever holding on to the presidency came last week when a liberal, business-friendly party inspired by Medvedev’s calls for a more open and less corrupt society was sabotaged by Putin loyalists. Billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov had been handpicked by the Kremlin to lead Right Cause—a tame opposition party, but an opposition party nonetheless, which had the blessing of Medvedev and was the closest thing Russia would have to a real voice of dissent in parliamentary elections in 2012. Last Tuesday Prokhorov was ousted from his own party after refusing candidate lists handed down from Putin’s veteran political godfather, Vladislav Surkov. The detonation of the Right Cause project was an early warning that Medvedev’s political traction—which had been tenuous at best—had all but slipped away.

During his first two terms as president, Putin presided over a systematic elimination of antigovernment TV channels; banned local elections and excluded genuine opposition parties from Parliament; jailed or exiled oligarchs who refused to toe the Kremlin line; appointed veterans of the KGB like himself to positions of power; and, according to State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, probably sanctioned the murder of enemies of the state in London, Dubai, and Vienna. The number of state employees also increased by 50 percent to close to 1.5 million—and, not coincidentally, bribes and corruption rose to a third of Russia’s GDP, according to the Moscow-based NGO Committee to Fight Corruption. In a 2009 essay published on the Kremlin blog, Medvedev argued that if Russia is to ever become an "active and respected member of the world community of free nations," it needs “a political system which is open and flexible."

"Should Russia continue to drag into the future our primitive raw-materials economy, endemic corruption, and inveterate habit of relying on the state, foreign countries or some all-powerful doctrine to solve our problems?" Medvedev asked in the naive early days of his doomed presidential career. "Today, for the first time in our history we have the chance to prove to ourselves and the world that Russia can develop democratically."

He may have been right. But that chance—if it ever existed—will have to wait until the true end of the Putin era.