It is official. The current Russian President has announced that the former Muscovite head of state will soon be elected President once again. In other words, Vladimir Putin has been tapped by Dmitry Medvedev to succeed the successor. A rotation in office will occur. This will be blessed, of course, by a free presidential election. Naturally, the Putin-Medvedev duo has paid lip service to democracy, or, in their instance, “sovereign democracy” (суверенная демократия). The latter is a vast improvement on Communist democracy, which was as different from parliamentary democracy as a regular chair from an electric chair, to invoke an old Soviet-era joke. But to qualify, democracy means that its ingredients – like elections, rule of law, and others – need to be qualified too. Thus, in a “sovereign democracy,” electoral and legal issues are invariably resolved in favor of current power holders. But since the current President succeeded the real power holder over three years ago, Medvedev remains a “sovereign” successor. He is expected to yield the way for his predecessor to succeed him.
Why then the charade of Putin standing down from the presidency back in 2008? Well, it is congruent with the nature of the post-Communist system. It would have been unconstitutional for him to have stayed on for a third term. And, in the Russian Federation, everything official has to be legal. For example, the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who deluded himself that he could be Russia’s George Soros, was legally stripped of his assets and sent to the Gulag. Everything was according to the letter of the law. There was the independent, pardon, “sovereign,” court; and it issued a sentence: guilty.
This is in congruence with the Soviet tradition, of course. The Stalin Constitution of 1936 was the freest constitution in the world. That is why, when the Great Purge commenced soon after the enactment of the basic law, the enemies of the people were unmasked and punished quite legally. Most of them confessed their crimes, after all. Never mind that it was under torture. Never mind that most were not guilty, some were even enthusiastic supporters of the system. What matters was that they almost invariably affixed their signature to the instrument of their death or imprisonment: a confession. And then the NKVD troika – a lawyer, a persecutor, and a judge – decided within two minutes the severity of one’s sentence. Shooting or the Gulag? Socialist legality was an absolute must.
Thus, all was legal, you see. Just like all constitutional and judicial proceedings in a “sovereign democracy” with Putin currently at its helm. Now, however, things have improved significantly under “sovereign” legality. No confession from the kleptocrat Khodorkovsky was required; his lawyer was not expected to denounce the client in unison with the prosecutor; the trial was not held in secret, although the instructions to the judges were issued from above long before the proceedings commenced. Yet, like under Stalin, neither guilt nor innocence prompts a case. There are other oligarchs guilty of similar transgressions like the hapless Khodorkovsky. Post-Soviet law has ignored them so far because they kowtow to the post-Soviet law giver: Putin. Such is the “sovereign” meaning of “sovereign” democracy as far as the law in Russia is concerned.
The same “sovereign” mechanism applies to the upcoming presidential elections. Putin will be the official candidate of the Kremlin’s own political party, United Russia. This virtually guarantees a victory. Of course, unlike in the Soviet times, there will be other candidates for the top post; there will also be other political parties backing them. But only United Russia can win. That is post-Communism at its most optimal, according to the former Marxist-Leninist nomenklatura who remain in power.
Thus, the “transformed” Communists, who often call themselves patriots, socialists, democrats, and even liberals, enjoy a virtual monopoly on power in Russia. Most of the time, they tolerate dissent, provided the dissidents are not excessively uppity and effective. And the Russian post-Communists are kinder and gentler than their post-Soviet counterparts in the Central Asian satrapies. One wonders whether the ratio of the post-KGB personnel in power is higher still in those countries than at the Kremlin, where it reaches, by some accounts, an astounding 80 percent.
The Chekists who run Moscow are arguably less rigid than the former Soviet secret policemen at the helm in Minsk. This matters to the extent that an obedient Russian oligarch can ply his kleptocratic trade, thus sowing the seed of future free markets in the Kremlin’s crony capitalist “sovereign” system. In Belarus there are virtually no oligarchs. There is just a veteran border KGB officer in charge: Oleksandr Lukashenka. He is as close to Central Asian post-comrades as possible in a European setting. Even though the master of the Kremlin outranks him, Putin has presided over a more pluralistic polity. Russia’s society is less oppressive than the one of Belarus and, thus, it has been able to self-generate a more viable opposition. The expectations of the Russians are also greater than of the Belarusians. The former are also permitted to show a broader range of dissatisfaction. Consequently, although he remains genuinely popular among most Russians, Putin apparently enjoys less support than Lukashenka among his subjects.
Yet, like its Belarusian counterpart, the Russian government party remains firmly ensconced at the top. This stems from the Kremlin’s unchallenged monopoly on power; its extensive control of the media; and its firm sway over the economy. Without the ability to project their alternative message to Russia’s mass electorate, the opposition candidates linger in obscurity. Of course, there are exceptions. Just recently, an ostensible champion of liberal reforms, a billionaire, and former KGB officer, Alexandr Lebedev, fed a fist sandwich to a fellow oligarch, Sergei Polonsky, on live TV (see below).Http iframes are not shown in https pages in many major browsers. Please read this post for details.
But this punch is hardly likely to propel either man to Russia’s presidency.
Although a few leaders of the opposition are awash with cash, many ordinary Russians identify them with the chaotic 1990s. To many average citizens, Putin’s iron grip means the restoration of order. Firmness in the Kremlin indicates that Russia is humiliated no more at home or abroad. And that is the popular perception of the achievements of the former, and soon to be again, president.
Money alone does not buy one power in Moscow these days. Power reacquired through active measures (aктивные мероприятия) of the Chekists results in more power. The post-Communists routinely use all surreptitious methods short of violence to maintain themselves at the top. They regularly run influence operations at home and abroad. Theirs is a counterintelligence project par excellence. In Russia old habits never die, or, as Putin put it himself, “once a Chekist, always a Chekist.”
That Vladimir Putin enjoys power was obvious when he refused to retire after his two presidential stints. Instead, he found a device to perpetuate himself at the top. He seconded his trusty lieutenant, Dmitry Medvedev, to play president for a while. By assuming the post of prime minister, the post-Soviet leader continued to control the nation, albeit from a less lofty perch. This guaranteed the means and the cadres to keep tabs on President Medvedev, in case he developed independent ideas. Theoretically, the Russian chief of government can be dismissed at will by the president. Practically, this can only happen if the head of state marches to his own tune.
And many banked on the lieutenant emancipating himself from the capo di tutti capi. In this instance, however, Moscow watchers would be disappointed. That is not to say that their guestimates were unsound. History knows plenty of precedents of the underlings climbing, sometimes quite literarily, over the dead bodies of their erstwhile masters. Power tends to embolden one to bid for more of it. Thus, the pundits in and out of Russia, in the West in particular, were analyzing and overanalyzing every sign of disagreement, real and alleged, between Medvedev and Putin. If the prime minister and the president seemed to operate in concord, then elaborate and penetrating reports would appear about the discord between their immediate underlings. Putin’s siloviki of the secret police and armed forces had it out with the liberal technocrats of Medvedev, many a story ran. True enough, but what did it mean? It turns out: nothing.
Medvedev has been obligingly palatable for the West, but he never stopped being a loyal lieutenant to Putin. Perhaps the current head of state really believes that the best way to achieve Russia’s strategic objective, the imperial re-integration of the post-Soviet sphere and economic supremacy, requires stability at the center. And the only way to preserve it is to follow Putin who, as is imagined in the Muscovite state, brought the Motherland from the brink of disaster to a half-way home that can lead to greatness, if only everyone follows the leader and the party in power.
Of course, Russia being Russia, all this may just be a gigantic deception operation and the alleged endorsement is just a sign of life-and-death struggle behind the scenes. Improbable, if not impossible, this would be very, very Stalinesque. And Stalinesque is quite au courant in Moscow these days (see “Average Joe: The Return of Stalin Apologists”).
Photo above courtesty of www.kremlin.ru.