The Return of the King
It's official: Vladimir Putin is Russia's once and future president. So how come we're surprised all over again?
MOSCOW – Back in December 2007, with his second presidential term running out, Vladimir Putin decided not to violate the letter of the Russian constitution. Instead, he chose to step down, become prime minister, and nominate one of his old St. Petersburg buddies, an aide named Dmitry Medvedev, for president. Back then, a good joke started to make the rounds: Russia, 2023. Putin and Medvedev are sitting in one of their kitchens, drinking and shooting the breeze. "Listen," slurs Putin. "I’ve lost track again. Which one of us is prime minister, and which is president?"
"You’re the president now, I think," slurs Medvedev.
"Well," slurs Putin, "then it’s your turn to go and get more beer."
It was a prophetic joke, and one that turned out to be all too accurate Saturday, when Medvedev announced the latest switch: Putin will return to the presidency in next year’s election and Medvedev will take up the prime minister’s post. And yet the joke was somehow lost on us over the last four years as we (rightly) let other debates get in the way, from the long silly distraction of wondering who was actually in charge (answer: Putin, of course) to the disputes over whether to believe Medvedev’s talk of modernization. Even despite these last few months, when it became clear that Putin would come back, we managed to be surprised all over again when it actually happened.
"It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted," said Andrei Kolesnikov, the Kommersant journalist who, in his intimate chronicles of Putin, has become the man’s hagiographer. We were standing in the press section of the grandstands at the convention for the United Russia ruling party, looking down on the swarm of thousands of delegates filing their paper ballots in unanimous support of Putin’s party platform.
"We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious," he said. "It’d be nice to have some actual surprises because the situation is just so stable" — Putin’s watchword — "that when they made the announcement, I got really sleepy. Really. Because this is for keeps."
While Kolesnikov drifted off, the Twittering masses of Russia were either euphoric or in despair, depending on their political leanings. The despairing liberals, a dwindling crowd after two decades of dashed post-Soviet hopes, were utterly winded and deflated. Why does God hate Russia, one asked. And then everyone started doing the math: How old would we be when Putin finally leaves office in 2024 (a date that supposes he serves two more consecutive terms, which were extended to six years back in 2008)? Russia’s digital airwaves quickly filled with a younger generation bemoaning their lost youth: Many of them will be pushing 40 by then, and they’ve already spent their last 12 years under his watch.
"When Putin finishes his second six-year term, I’ll already be 58," one older blogger wrote. "Almost my entire life will have been spent with him." He punctuated this with a frown.
But Kolesnikov, at least, was still seeing a glimmer of opportunity in this latest Kremlin machination. "I hope we’ll see a new Putin, this is my only hope," he told me, "because the earlier iterations have exhausted themselves."
In 2000, he and two other journalists (one of whom later became Medvedev’s press secretary) authored a book called In the First Person, an as-told-to account from Putin of his life. At the time, Putin was a little-known former KGB agent newly installed in the presidency by an ailing Boris Yeltsin; though obscure, Putin from the start talked of his plans to restore Russian pride after a post-superpower decade of economic collapse and political intrigue. Periodically, Kolesnikov said, he goes back and reads certain sections and is amazed to see how prophetic it all was, how much of what Putin promised back then he’s since delivered. "Even the idea of monarchy," Kolesnikov noted. "He said that, it may sound weird, but the idea of monarchy is appealing to me because a monarch doesn’t have to worry about elections and can focus on the well-being of his subjects, so it’s not such a bad idea." And even this idea, Kolesnikov noted, "is being realized."
No doubt the fact that Russia is staring down another looming economic crisis makes this return — to the presidency or monarchy or whatever we call it — rather problematic. The ruble dropped precipitously this week, and Putin and his finance minister have been squabbling in public in recent days over whether the state can deliver on its mounting social obligations without increasing taxes, or fomenting social unrest. Then again, given Putin’s predilection for talking tough but not necessarily doing much, not to mention the fact that many of Russia’s current problems — corruption, cronyism, Byzantine politics — were cemented into place during his reign, it seems the course he’s choosing is to plow ahead and change as little as possible. Which, if you think about it, is a rather bold move, too.
"Putin is a very talented politician," said Aleksei Chesnakov, a United Russia official who was one of Putin’s key strategists during his first two terms. "He never repeats himself and yet always remains himself. A politician’s style is set early and forever, and his style, his manner of making decisions are well-known, and they will remain the same." Chesnakov assured me, however, that "Putin has always been a keenly responsive politician" who will continue to adapt to conditions as they develop. ("The child hasn’t been conceived yet, and you’re asking if it’ll be a great mathematician," he told me, when I pressed him on what we can expect from the new Putin epoch.)
That remains to be seen. For now, though, Kolesnikov’s monarchy thesis — which, by the way, has more than a few supporters among the Russian elite — seems to be coming to pass, but with more subtlety than the name would suggest. Russia has shed its still-new adornments of modernity and is once again coming out as a deeply conservative government based on personal ties.
"On one hand, it’s a good thing because any ambiguity has now been removed," says political analyst Masha Lipman, referring to the "whither Putin, whither Medvedev" schizophrenia of the last four years. (This, by the way, will also make American foreign policy easier: just one man to deal with.) "On the other hand," she points out, "for everyone who has been thinking and writing about political modernization in Russia, the hope of this happening has been definitively negated." That is, even though few ever really believed Medvedev had the power to modernize without Putin, there was a hope that his installation in the Kremlin was the trial balloon for loosening the reins. Apparently, the balloon has burst.
But that leaves more questions than answers. Why has it failed? How has Medvedev failed, if he was acting the entire time with Putin’s approval? Why will he be more effective as prime minister than as president? Neither the president nor the prime minister — match the names to the titles as you see fit — explained this in their speeches on Saturday, perhaps because the answer is obvious and yet cannot be uttered in polite company.
Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin get elected in 2000 and who was an advisor to Medvedev until he was fired in May, had another question. "Medvedev never planned to say no to a candidacy for a second term," Pavlovsky told me. "What happened? Was he pressured? Did they make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? He didn’t explain his refusal in any way." The explanation, from where I sit, lies in that joke from late 2007, and in past columns I’ve written here: Medvedev, despite his haggard, emotional appearance at the United Russia convention Saturday, has always known that it was not his decision to make. And that once Putin made the decision, he could do nothing but accept it. That was the bargain he struck in 2007, a bargain that would be hard to call Faustian: The end was clear from the beginning.
So what will happen now that the end and beginning are one? Some are predicting a new wave of immigration — or a class of dual-citizenship holders — for those who had other things in mind for the next 12 years. Others see Medvedev, as prime minister, shouldering the blame for the next wave of economic crisis. ("Prime ministers are easy to replace," notes Lipman.) Still others see Putin steering the ship of state for a few more years and stepping down early. But Kolesnikov sees 12 more years for Putin, "because it’s the first version" again. Pavlovsky, though, sees altogether different man: "The Putin of 2000 was a politician I loved, but that Putin is dead," he says. "And the Putin of 2007 is gone. Today’s Putin is a zombie."
What’s certain, however, is that the office of president — buttressed as it was by the degradation of every other institution over the last decade — has lost quite a bit of its legitimacy. And United Russia, created a decade ago to be the country’s new ruling party, has apparently been dealt a body blow. It’s being slowly swallowed up by the nebula that is a new entity set up by Putin known as the National People’s Front, while United Russia will now be led through the parliamentary elections by Medvedev, a man who was just publicly stripped of his scepter. That may be good news for people who see United Russia as the Party of Crooks and Thieves, but where does that leave Russia? "I think we’ll see a decline in the authority of the government, people will see it as silly, as odious," says Pavlovsky, "and power will have to lean increasingly on those who depend on it for wealth, for status. That’s not a healthy scenario, but it will be with us for a long time."
Which is perhaps why so much alcohol was traded hands via Twitter in the aftermath of Saturday’s big announcement. Someone lost a couple beers on their presidential bet, others won cases of cognac. I won a bottle of Hennessy. Others just wanted to get to drinking away their shock at suddenly facing what’s been hidden in plain sight these four years. At the very least, it might pleasantly confuse them about where the rotating door might spin in the future.