The Oil and the Glory

What Russians told Putin about his oil-powered sense of entitlement

Until September, Russia was ruled in a careful choreography: President Dmitry Medvedev was the face on a tough but reformist agenda that included the construction of Skolkovo, a richly financed version of Silicon Valley in the Moscow suburbs, and a more conciliatory approach to western foreign policy initiatives. Actual power was held by Prime Minister ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Until September, Russia was ruled in a careful choreography: President Dmitry Medvedev was the face on a tough but reformist agenda that included the construction of Skolkovo, a richly financed version of Silicon Valley in the Moscow suburbs, and a more conciliatory approach to western foreign policy initiatives. Actual power was held by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who nevertheless in public was the "chest," spending much time traveling the country in service of showing off his physique and harpooning abilities.

On Sept. 24, however, Putin announced his intention to return as president in elections next year; he would swap with Medvedev, who would take occupancy of the lesser post of prime minister. It would be Putin’s third term in the Kremlin, a home he surrendered in 2008 because of a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.  Putin thought that his word, along with the largesse-enabling factor of high oil prices, were sufficient in terms of setting in motion Russia’s next political transition. But on Sunday voters told him otherwise — the ruling United Russia party received less than half the total vote, and had to cheat to get that much. Russians informed Putin that he will have to campaign for victory on March 4.

So why did the ostensibly long-suffering Russians turn on Putin and deny United Russia continuation of the two-thirds margin that it won in the Duma four years ago?

The answer seems fairly simple. Until September, virtually everyone (with the exception of a few deluded advisers to Medvedev) recognized Putin as Russia’s paramount leader, an autocratic figure who alone decided what was best for his countrymen. But then Putin made this explicit: The choreography was mere show.

As we argued the day after Putin’s announcement, Russians don’t necessarily appreciate being trifled with — the lesser risk, we said, was to maintain the current tandem, with Medvedev in the Kremlin. As he and the rest of us learned Sunday, his brazenness in fact didn’t sit well with Russians. They did not cotton to being merely informed who would be their next president.

Surveying some of the observers I trust, the consensus is that it is impossible to precisely quantify how much the vote was impacted by the switch of the tandem. Yet there also is agreement that the outcome might well have been more favorable to United Russia had Putin not upended the show.

In the Wall Street Journal, Alan Cullison and Greg White quote Alexander Shokhin, the head of Russia’s largest business association: "The switch played out as a negative. People wanted the decision to be made in a different way."

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